PARIS, France – Peggy Hancock arrived in Paris infatuated with French cooking. But after 32 years there, the American in Paris is known for the warm welcome customers receive at her English tea room.
Hancock arrived from New York for her first visit to Paris in 1968, just after the enormous societal upheaval that ended France’s de Gaulle era. She returned five years later, firmly intending to settle down there and explore the universe of French gourmet food.
After helping some friends run restaurants on the Côte d’Azur and Paris’ left bank, Hancock was ready to create her own place. With three associates, her British husband and two American friends, she set out to find the right location. They opted for a then still rather quiet (but conspicuously beautiful) 19th century shopping promenade called Galerie Vivienne.
Built in 1823, the “Gallery” was sought after by fashion merchants, because the well-heeled ladies of the second empire would leisurely wander from window to window there, protected from rain and wind. It eventually fell into decay until the mid-1960s, when the gallery was rediscovered by a famous follower of the surrealist art movement, who revived it with art exhibitions in place of shops.
When several stores became available in 1980, Hancock and her team were invited to create an English-style Tea room at the Gallery. They opened A Priori Thé (a play on “a priorité, French for “above all”).
With original furniture shipped from Great Britain and classic English patterned china and silverware, the tea room was an immediate success. “However,” Hancock recalled, “all this beautiful stuff got stolen very rapidly, and within a year we switched to white porcelain and stainless steel cutlery, and that was it!”
Hancock said her many customers from neighborhood businesses – including the National Library, the Magnum Photos agency, and national newspapers – didn’t really care much about the change in tableware. “What attracted them all was the concept we had introduced, the one plate lunch, along with Anglo Saxon food such as brownies, pumpkin pie, cheesecake and crumbles, which many of them discovered here for the first time.”
In its early years, Hancock and her friends ran A Priori The. Because they all had young children, they put their energy into long days at the tea room, while the little ones played safely in the Gallery, not far from their mothers’ eyes.
“My two daughters have grown up here,” Hancock said. “It was a pity we could never get the next door or the upstairs place to have more room for running the business more comfortably.”
Her other three shareholders gradually dropped out of the business, and by 1986, Hancock found herself to be the only boss. After almost 30 years in business, she is still apparently in love with the unique place she created.
Hancock noted that being open seven days a week, doing lunches, early dinners, afternoon teas and huge Sunday brunches, would be impossible without her cheerful, accessible and loyal staff.
Since opening, she has gotten her teas from Dammann Fréres, a major French specialty tea wholesaler and importer. She started with a selection of premium Darjeeling teas, which matched the Anglo Saxon cooking. Later, Hancock added the French Tea Lovers Club, set up by tea author Gilles Brochard, who convinced her to include some Chinese green teas. Hancock also added her own flavored and blended teas.
From time to time, she stages special tasting sessions, but she believes most customers visit the tea room primarily to talk, eat and have tea – they’re just too busy to attend to cultural activities.
Hancock said afternoon teas generate the most profit, drawing an average of 80 customers on Saturday afternoons. Food represents about 50 percent of the revenue.
Looking back, Hancock feels she has been lucky to meet the right people at the right time to lead her to success. A recent example is last year’s opening of her second tea room, actually a tea corner in the big garden terrace of a Left Bank fashion store.
“They came after me and asked if I could set up their tea salon corner based on the model of A Priori Thé,” Hancock said. “We started off with a staff of three, which were trained here. After a slow start, it is now quite busy too.”
She recalls one of the tea room’s most memorable events: “We were fully booked for the 50th birthday celebration of the Magnum Photos agency with founder Henri Cartier Bresson as the host. Instead of the 80 guests we expected – our maximum capacity – there were 180! And on that January 31st (1997), the winter was like spring, so the whole crowd could swarm out into the gallery to chat and celebrate. It was magical.”