How To Start a Tea Room, in Seven Parts (Part 1)

Finding it

    In the beginning, “podunk” was a funny word chosen as the name of a simple place, a new kind of home. For years, while I worked in publishing, we three would pass little cafes, humble bars, small shops, and even if the place was almost empty, we found them cozy. If we saw a person in there, we supposed him or her to be the owner, and we had this thought—how wonderful to have a place of your own to go, every day, that you'd designed and thought about, and even if no one came in, you'd pour yourself a little warm drink and read the paper and that was about as lovely as it could get.

    “Come in—or don't. More for us,” my daughter joked in Soho on a Saturday in 2001 as we passed a tiny china shop where a cat was asleep in the window. Frankly, the couple who were inside tending the place didn't look as if they needed anything else in the world to be happy. In contrast, we were in a place that wasn't very happy at all. I had worked as a freelancer and full-time in various media, ever since my daughter was seven months old, while my husband had raised her almost alone while pursuing his work as a researcher in mostly academic venues. We had paid off the apartment in New York City, and we had the house in Connecticut for weekends, and a car, and a cat, and it was all supposed to be what we wanted, but it wasn't. We all felt it, but we weren't sure what to do about it.

There was a “For Rent” sign in the Connecticut town where we spent our weekends, on a tiny row of storefronts just up the hill from a popular, perfect lake. It was surrounded by trees and old Victorians, and across from the public beach was that most private of schools, Hotchkiss, where ruddy faced girls and pink-cheeked boys played field hockey against golden autumn landscapes. The three of us could not drive past that “For Rent” sign without staring at it, and it came with a little cottage across the street, all for $550 a month. Nothing about that rent could we get over. We would talk about great shops that could fit there, with the town, and how we'd bring in supplies from New York, and what we'd do in the winter, when the town was quiet. We noted, triumphantly, as if we had been born to this notion, that as we drove up there every weekend, we could keep our city life and our city jobs, while also running a business on weekends, when the town was full of tourists and daytrippers. We'd been daytrippers, so we knew what the town needed, we told ourselves.

    This daydream so preoccupied us, but it was more like a board game we were obsessed with, or a piece of music we loved so much that we turned the car radio all the way up whenever it was on. Our lives were set in stone, and no one really thought we'd rent a shop and set up a business. But that storefront was an adorable dollhouse that we kept redecorating, in our minds, tirelessly. It always made us forget, if only temporarily, just how restless we were.

    It was fall, 2001, and we were all reeling, as Americans and as New Yorkers, from the events of September 11. The city felt subdued, but everyone I knew was restless. There was a sense, everywhere, of the need for action, a feeling of immediacy. A new job for me meant we had less time for weekends away, and we'd also grown weary of living in two places. There were always two tubes of toothpaste in one home and none in the other, and the advice of others who lived in our area, to “have the help come in and ready the place before you get there, to stock up and lay a fire,” was certainly beyond our income or thinking.

    My daughter was becoming increasingly social on weekends. We were also starting to give into the feeling that we needed some sort of financial consolidation—maybe there were times when you did put all your eggs in one basket after all. 

    We packed up the Connecticut house, and were starting to adjust to cold city walks on the weekends, vowing to walk the entire length and width of Manhattan after so many months away. We had newcomers' eyes and locals' sense of direction and neighborhood—the perfect combination for exploring the city. We were fearless and energetic, and the number of new shops and apartment buildings on every block—as well as the number of reliable old establishments still thrumming along—matched our sense of wanting something new, even if we called upon familiar resources.

    You cannot walk that much in Manhattan and not notice every “For Rent” sign in the borough. “Store for Rent,” “Retail Space for Rent,” and “1600 square feet plus basement” didn't really lure us over the windows, but we did a lot of peeking in and squinting and peering through side doors and yes, testing doors to see if a trusting realtor had left any unlocked for potential tenants. We were not looking for a space, but we were, and we crossed streets to scout locations, waved each other down desolate blocks to “see this, come here!” and never got tired of imagining ourselves in most of them. 

    I had a map of the city with me, and we drew lines through all the territory we covered until there were more marks than map. One day, though, amid the mess of scribbles and loops and X's over entire areas, we spied a piece of East Fifth Street that we'd never, in all our trips to the East Village, come across. It was not a thoroughfare, but interrupted once at Avenue A to First Avenue, again on Avenue C, and cut off entirely at Third Avenue (or, as it's variously called, Bowery and Cooper Square). The little stretch between First and Third, just two blocks long, we'd completely ignored. 

    Now it was May, 2002 and almost Memorial Day, and extremely hot. Second Avenue was as steamy as summer, and St. Mark's Place was already in carnival mood for the season. We trudged past the crowds of punks and rockers, teenagers and bikers, city strollers and barking dogs, and vendors selling sunglasses, south to Fifth Street. We turned right, and stopped.

    In late spring, the trees had formed a shady canopy over the entire street. We took tentative steps forward, and the temperature dropped a few degrees. There was a rustle of leaves overhead, and the trucks and traffic of Second Avenue faded from our hearing. Townhouses on the left, tenements on the right, punctuated by a couple of large, restored old apartment buildings—these gave the impression of an old neighborhood, not too pretty, not too tired, just a block where people actually lived and worked. And there, in the middle of the block, two doors down from a flower shop and beautiful brick-lined wine store, was a bay window out of a Hollywood set. 

    I should add, now, that it was a bay window out of a Hollywood set of the “before” part of the story. Someone had painted the carved gingerbread around the plate glass a robin's egg blue, with a lime green peeking out where the paint had chipped. Inside the heavy wooden door we could see workers in the middle of demolition. In the very back was an enormous window, and just beyond it was what appeared to be a garden. Taped to the glass was small scrap of paper, bearing the handwriting of someone who was possibly old or in a big hurry. “For Rent,” followed by a phone number. 

    We walked to the corner, fumbling for quarters for the phone call. We hardly talked to each other. We had silently agreed, the three of us, that we wanted to know the rent on this little place. We weren't entirely sure what I was going to say to anyone at the other end of the line. But an inquiry couldn't hurt.

    An answering machine put all questions to rest. It was an oracle, a palm-reading, an enigmatic piece of wisdom, straight from the realtor's desk. 

     “You have reached Chuck Schwartz's real estate office. If it's Monday all day or Tuesday morning, please don't leave a message. If it's Tuesday after one p.m., leave a message and we will call you back. You may also leave a message on Wednesday, from ten a.m. to 2 p.m., but not before or after those hours. We will be in the office Thursday after noon, and Friday, but please don't leave a message—simply hang up and call back. We return all weekend phone calls on Tuesday. Thank you.”

     The robust voice that had recorded the message was so distinguished and matter-of-fact that I believe I did leave a message, noting that it was Memorial Day and technically a weekend call, and that we'd love to hear from him Tuesday. We were so nervous, and we had not been, for any other calls to realtors. 

    In fact, I’d wondered if as for house-hunting, finding a spot for business was going to be settling for the best of the lot. We’d seen wonderful locations, the right size, price, and aesthetic (white walls, wooden floors), on busy avenues, and I couldn’t imagine Samia in them. We’d seen small homier spots that came with low ceilings, odd-shaped rooms, but the location felt less like a business district and more like a neighborhood. 

     This one felt right in all ways. So when Chuck called back, as we knew he would, it was the beginning of a move-in that took place in July. Those details are lost to time; none of us can trace the precise order of events anymore. It was a business-like transaction, but that's about all I recall. And our 92-year-old landlord, Mr. Morton Tabak, sent us riders to the lease written in his own hand.

    We'd seen the place, and it was Podunk. 

Seven Behaviors to Keep Customers Happy

This summer Podunk, Inc. turned 13. That’s a lucky number, for us, and as reports come from all over New York City of businesses like ours taking down the shingle, we feel like it’s time to come clean about some time-honored axioms in the realm of customer service. My late husband used to have these sayings, which we thought were corny, until we realized he was right. They are now part of the Podunk handbook, and part of employee core training.

  1. Everybody who comes in is somebody. We just don’t know it yet. Greet every new person like an old friend, and old friends as family.
  2. If that person is NOT somebody, he or she knows somebody, who has set their expectations for Podunk very high. We need to meet or surpass those expectations.
  3. Deliver a glass of water with the same grace as if it were our most expensive entree.
  4. Give customers permission to ask questions about the menu. Embed into any welcome the notion that we need to know how to make them happy.
  5. You don’t set money on fire, and you don’t trash your own home. Why wouldn’t you treat your number one asset, customers, with kid gloves?
  6. Don’t be the first one to break eye contact. People have a primal craving to be listened to, especially in the age of phone screens and laptops.
  7. Everybody is somebody who is going to mention you to another somebody. The returns on a little time is palpable—so why not make a lasting impression?

Summer Orientation

July! It means that the drought that is the tea business in summer is half over, that my own nostalgia for time spent up at a lakeside cabin will ebb soon, that the door will soon be worn off its hinges by returning students next month. I know what this month feels like; I understand it; I orient myself accordingly.

Orientation is very much on my mind. We have only so many ways—menu, signs, photographs—of explaining to a potential customer what we do and how they might enjoy tea here. So our customers, this month, might be travelers, with little English to help them, and I speak next to no other language. The Brits show up half-desperate for a familiar English tea for tuppence, the summer-school students arrive clamoring for something novel and inexpensive. Ex-New Yorkers visit the city and stop in, expecting a bakery and coffee shop, only to find that tea has trumped all. Even tourists from this country may not be from a city that hands over as much time to tea as New York does. Lipton, a fine old company, is their only reference.

The scent of baking cookies, cakes, and scones is immediately enticing, but how to help customers stay? The obstacles are numerous. No neon backlit sign offers the #23 combo with a side salad, no waiter pelts them with specials, and the chalkboard, if I’ve remembered to write on it, offers to some eyes cryptic advice with haiku-like terseness: “Summer morning blend rose verbena, color of clouds.” To quote a review on Yelp: “Podunk Tearoom, WTF?”

Without orientation, no one can function. Normally well-behaved persons begin to stammer, and, growing angry that their training is failing them, become rude and brusque. Those accustomed to a few aimed utterances which constitute their order have to become loquacious, abandoning terseness in the name of clarity. The bespectacled lady behind the counter suggests, tweaks the menu, substitutes. The customer calms himself, herself, thinks about tea time. Asks, finds encouragement, grows more brave. Leaves the counter and waits for it to happen. Whatever “it” is. And is often, we hope, delighted.

Without orientation, a human being is reduced to simply being human, and must use words to explain exactly what she has in mind. In this room, which is governed by the simple principle of giving people what they want even before they know they want it, wonderful results are daily in abundance.

In June, a tea room blooms . . .

    Whatever the poets say about April being the cruelest month, June beats it in the tea room. After Mother's Day, May’s bridal showers, graduations, parents visiting, and Memorial Day farewells-for-the-summer, the room goes so still that I am grateful when it is hot enough for the white noise of the air conditioner. Otherwise, I’d have to listen to the sound of the door not opening, the tea kettle never clicking “off” when the water boils, the oven not roaring to life for a Tea a la Bonne Femme.

     When my husband was alive, he’d regularly come out of the office, stare at the empty room, and say, “Is this the year we go out of business?” I’d make us tea, then, or sometimes pull an espresso, to buoy his spirits and brace myself for the long reassurances into the night that no, this was just June, the month when we starve. It’s in the ledger. For 13 summers, this has been the most exasperating 30 days on the calendar. I finally have time to clean the corners, but I’d rather be baking. I finally have time to read cookbooks, but I am too beset by the feeling that nothing I bake will ever be eaten and appreciated by a real customer. Friends stop in expecting Elspeth and getting Eeyore; I have nothing good to say about anything. And it’s June! The month of summer-at-last, cracked-ice and cold fruity teas, berries in season, peaches!

    This year is different. I counted my pennies, drove to Home Depot with Amy to buy paint, and enlisted Samia, Katelyn, Arsenio and Josefin to join me in a painting frenzy. Beer helped. Tea is useful, but when you want youthful exuberance to get to the end of the paint job before nine o’clock, beer speeds up everything

    The room is still quiet. But I love the new look of spiffy surfaces and dustfree corners, a clear path to the office and accommodations for customers they have learned not to expect. I am writing here, now, while outside, the gentlemen in the construction trade appear to be dismantling the scaffolding we've endured for two years. I can only hope. In the meantime, stop by to say hello. I don’t expect you to buy anything—it’s June! But you will find a slightly less grouchy proprietor, feeling a little house-proud, and just under the scent of gingerbread and lavender-mint iced tea, the invigorating smell of fresh paint!

A look back in gratitude

It is almost Thanksgiving, and I am looking back over the past few months. I started to print out a new menu last evening--a habit of 12 years. But in the past, I printed it out so that my husband, whose sight was failing, could go over with a magnifying glass, make suggestions, and decide, with me, if there were holes in it, or gaps in what we were offering that we could remedy before the final printing. Our conversations always led to an improvement that neither of us could have arrived at alone. He was the one who insisted we have tea sandwiches. I was the one who said we’d have to stay open on Sundays. Both of these decisions have contributed mightily to the life of Podunk.

He is not here, to look at the menu. As many of you know, he died in January. Today I feel the years; it’s been a day of reflection because, perhaps, I finally have time to think. On Easter Sunday, we were just starting to stumble out of the darkness of my husband’s death when an errant babystroller left me with a broken wrist. While I faced a cast and surgery, some beloved customers--the Daughters of Podunk--took over the tea room. Hannah, bless her, posted a Google spreadsheet and they all signed up for days and hours and evenings, all while working their own jobs and living their own lives. Their boyfriends did dishes on weekends, and one of them baked up the most beautiful cookies and bars for Saturday teas. I was the very old dog. They were full of new tricks, and new ideas, and helpful advice. Podunk is stronger for their presence. I am stronger for their presence.

These days, I am mostly alone with the customers. My wrist is healed, my heart hurts less, and I remember how my husband, daughter and I built this tea room as an answer to every family’s quest to just “be together.” That’s all we wanted, and that’s what we had, but she is in college and he has gone on to, I hope, a warm hearth and a cat at his feet. Everyone’s pictures of heaven is a little different, but mine for him is that there is someone to cook his favorite dishes, let him smoke a good cigar on occasion, and to grind cardamom into his coffee. Or tea.

I am grateful, today, that I can hear his advice in my head and then make any decision I want, try any new recipe, reorganize the tea room’s very innards and turn us into a mocktail bar if I so choose. I am grateful that people keep coming in to sip our brand of idiosyncracy, and to put up with the eccentricities of a one-woman business. There are other tea rooms around New York City and I am glad for all of them and the tea-drinkers who keep us all in business, but I am just as glad to be the one person behind the recipes, the menus, the paint on the walls, the signs in the room, and the inventory for all of it. When you come in to Podunk, here I am. If you want the corporate treatment, regular hours, a full staff of eager employees, I can recommend a few places. But if you want a place where we cut out one scone at a time, and leave a little early on cold November evenings, this is it. And thank you for stopping by.

Tempest in a Tea Pot

     When anyone asks how have we lasted so long when other, arguably better-run businesses have faded, I inevitably answer, full of gratitude, “Word of mouth.” We have never paid a dime toward advertising, not because we don’t want to, but because we are waiting to grow big enough to have a marketing department, and someone, anyone, to run it.

    In the meantime, we have had professional word-of-mouth: The New York Times was an early champion in 2002, and then delivered the slam-dunk review in 2008 that I am certain saved us from the worst days of the Great Recession. Other publications, such as Time Out and New York magazine, repeatedly added their blessings. If, however, our teacup runneth over, it is not only because of such amazing articles, but because friends, and friends of friends of friends, have ushered in most of our clientele over 12 years.

    In those 12 years, too, the Internet has been a steadily influential, ramped-up version of word-of-mouth. So many people have posted so many great things that I can hardly take them in, and when they write about how the plate was arranged to reflect some order or concept, I think, “Really? I did that?” A long time ago, I wrote books, and when someone reviewing a title pointed out some particular piece of structure that they appreciated, I had that same sense of surprise.

    We have been so lucky. We’ve made a few top-eight and top-ten lists, and all I can say is “THANK YOU!!!!” But I also hear of grumblings on review sites, of customers who actually never sat down at a table in here but who nevertheless posted about their negative experiences. I have tried to answer them, publicly and via email, but I feel a little like Sisyphus, rolling that rock up a hill, only to see it crash down to the bottom again. Or, another story, when we took out the leaky rowboats of my summer childhood on the lakes of Minnesota; no matter how hard we bailed with a rusty soup can, the water kept rushing in. (Yes, we were allowed to touch rusty soup cans, and tetanus was never mentioned. We also rode around in the backseats of rattling station wagons without seatbelts, steel-belted radial tires, or sober parents. These observations, to my mother’s chagrin, I am saving for future posts.)

    The negative word-of-mouth is always shocking. I have 14-hour days as the norm, not the exception, so I know we work hard. I source the best ingredients and teas, and we pay a premium. I watch the room and it appears that everyone is having a good time. I ask about the food, the service, the experience, and even if I discount half the praise for people feeling on the spot and forced to say something nice, it’s a lot of positive feedback.

    When people write about the “old lady” behind the counter, I have to check the room to find out it’s ME. When they make a post a bad review about the fact that we don’t have coffee, I look around to see why they came in at all. There are no signs that say “coffee.”

    I’ve lit on one answer, which came to me this summer when no one was here, even though it was tea time, around 4:00. Bracketed as it was by two busy days, I was happy for the down time it provided, because I was ready for some tea. I could not keep my eyes open. Without customers in here to take care of, all I could think of was sleep. And then I remembered as a child, wanting to sleep through afternoon classes. In college I learned to take morning and evening classes, and go home to “study” in the afternoon. 

    The revelation is that I am a morning person. I am a night person. I am even a very late night, pre-dawn person. And I wake up cheerful. But there are much better people to be around at 4:00 in the afternoon when I have a natural crash, and am primed for possible meltdowns. While watching various young women handle the counter for me in downtime, I don’t hear their tone change at all over the course of the day. But my tone in the afternoon is, seriously, “I need to take a nap now, and it’s not your fault.” And people hear it, even though I think I sound normal. When you are tired, as when you are drunk, you have different perceptions of how you are behaving.

    So, even though afternoons are, literally, my bread and butter, I have to assess the fact that I am in those hours, bad for business. The word of mouth train leaves the station without me, then, while I staff up for afternoons. Elspeth may be facing early retirement. You will find a kinder, gentler persona in her place, I hope, very soon. And thanks for putting up with me for these 12 years. I am really grateful.

The early days at Podunk

    On August 31, 2002, we opened at 5:00 in the afternoon. It was Labor Day weekend and I had promised my husband we would open in August. I had a bad case of stage fright when it came to turning around the "Open" sign. That has never really changed, but on this day, he was becoming adamant. True, August was waning. But a water main was broken on the street, and we had no water. Not hot, not cold. A tea room could not open up without water. Despite customers waiting outside, I was a little insistent myself. Somehow, that first day passed, and the rest of our days have sort of been like rolling down a hill. Not every person and every incident makes it into my long-term memory banks. But I'll always remember the first customer I knew by name. This is also the story of our front door, the subject of many comments and much scrutiny.
    “This place is beautiful,” said a young man with an Adonis-like explosion of golden curls. “It is really quite wonderful.”
    “Thank you, thank you,” I said. “Are you here for tea?” He smiled, and nodded, but was unwilling, in the most polite way possible, to leave the conversation in the territory of a mere order.
    “Your distressed door is charming,” he added, motioning to the front of the room. “And fashionable. Very fashionable.”
    He had an white cashmere sweater tied casually around his shoulders, and the collar of his pima cotton polo shirt, in the creamy color of orange sherbet, stood straight up. Along with the neatly crumpled linen trousers he wore, his clothing gave off the impression that he knew fashion. And that he was set on lingering for a little chat.
    The point was that we hadn't meant to have a distressed door. Quite the opposite, was true; we'd hoped for a crisp, clean cottage look when the painters had set about to cover up the azure wood of the storefront with our nice bright whitewash. They hadn't been particularly thorough, however, in painting over the filled holes and screw marks of previous hardware, such as locks and door handles. Blue nicks peeked through in some areas and shimmered wanly behind whitewash that had been applied too thinly.
    Our own locksmith, in attempting to line up door and frame, had suggested, alternatively, that we either have a new door and frame made—luckily, he had a friend in the carpentry business—or demolish the entire gingerbread storefront and bay window in favor of a glass and aluminum rigging, summoning for me the vision of a dry cleaning store. And luckily—and we were so fortunate in our choice of locksmiths—he knew someone who could do this work at a reasonable price. In all fairness, our additions of door handles, new locks, and simple sanding attempts to fit the rectangular door into the parallelogram of the frame had resulted in so many scars that in some places, the evergreen that had preceded the blue showed through.
    Further, the locksmith had made all his suggestions as he removed a hinge from the door and watched rotten wood stream like the sands of time all over my just-varnished, barely cured floor. His timing was that perfect.
    Now, after only a week of being open, I had learned that shorter answers were easier, that if every detail of our lives could be turned into a story, so it could also be turned into a brief yes or no intended to move the line along. But the eyes of Adonis were watching me closely, and there was something else on his mind. I decided to answer.
    “I don't think there was an intention on our part to be, as you say, fashionable,” I told him. “There were some difficulties and, well, we just sort of resigned ourselves to the door's own character.”
    “Ah,” he said. “In Italian, we have a word for this. It means the equivalent of your 'as is' but we mean it more appreciatively.”
    “Like the well-worn stones in a very old church?” I asked. He nodded. “Like the chipped and rubbed finish of a beloved dining table?”
    “Yes, you have it,” he said. “It's delightful. Now, please blend some black tea and mint, no milk or sugar.” I put his tray together, and he paid, and then took a very deep breath.
    “My name is Sergio,” he said. “I live on this street. I have been watching your family struggling with that door these last two weeks, and I was very much on your side in the battle. But now that I have seen that door up close, it seems as if something of a very fine truce was achieved.” He added a scone to his tray, and turned to take a table.
    I started laughing. I couldn't wait to tell my husband and daughter about this funny fellow. While we had worked on the exterior of the shop, I'd forced myself to believe we were invisible. I didn't want to think of people watching us. We'd been hot in the July and August sun, and splattered with paint, and who knows how inept or efficient we appeared while installing the windowbox, or the ornate iron grates that lined the wall under the bay window. I'd told myself we were workers, anonymous and of no interest. Now it was clear we'd been busted.
    But his were benevolent eyes, to be sure. He'd been rooting for us to open even before he knew who were were, and what we were trying to build. How much good will could there be in the person who, before he'd even had a sip of tea, was as welcoming as Sergio? As I told my family later of his words, I felt—we all felt—fortunate that such good customers, from our very earliest days, pored through our door for tea.
    The next time Sergio walked in, he was with a gorgeous woman with white hair and  bronze skin from the neckline of her apricot-colored suit. She leaned on him slightly, and touched his cheek now and then, and they were so vibrantly intimate that when he seated her at a table and came to order, I busied myself with their pot and tray, and didn't expect any conversation. He was curt, and kept to himself, a completely different manner than his earlier openness, but oh, in the very steep learning curve of starting a business, I knew that customers often changed from informal to formal depending on the company they kept. A shy girl on her own the first time had become the leader of a pack of girls on her second visit, ordering pots of tea with confidence and picking up the check with glee over the protests of her friends. An elderly woman who had spoken to me for a few minutes in one visit came the next time with a briefcase and business companion and wanted not conversation but efficiency. One learns to read all the signs, and in Sergio's case, he was in need of discretion and tea.
    As they poured the tea and opened up a large set of blueprints, their heads were together and they spoke in low urgent tones of a "penzione" and balconies, and balastrudes, and large open rooms, and Sergio was writing neatly in a small leather notebook as the woman, elegant in her reading glasses and her arms jangling with bracelets, pointed out walls, or lines or windows that she was changing. He nodded and wrote, answered back, wrote, sipped tea, smiled at her fondly, wrote.
    Were they architect and client? Was she an old friend of the family, of a certain age, who depended on the very beautiful Sergio for advice in navigating the waters of home renovation? There was so much affection flowing between them, but the need to finish the blueprints was moving the teatime along at a pace I associated with business meetings.
    "She is my mother," Sergio said, as he paid. "She wants her new apartment to be ready for the new year, when all of my brothers and sisters and their children will fly in.'
    "Lovely," I answered. "She's so beautiful."
    "She is," he said. "And she is smart, and she always gets her way, and I will be away  most of the fall seeing to her home."
    "No time for tea, I think."
    "No time for tea at Podunk," he answered. "But I am certain that I will always find a way to stop back when I am in New York."

    And he has.