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.