Editor's Note: Teahouses are the touchpoint for specialty teas. They are cornerstones of communities and special destinations. They are also labors of love with a big dose of hard work and tenacity mixed in. In her series, Angela Renals, explores these special places where "tea is served" and those special people who serve it up. At the time of this posting, most American Teahouses are closed due to covid-19. Please show your support for your local teahouse however you can. We look forward to their re-opening.
Contributed by Angela Renals of Destination Tea
WhenClaudia Zacharko set out to run a Mexican restaurant, she had no way of knowingthat she would today be the 16-year owner of Canfield, Ohio tearoom PiccadillyParlour Victorian Tearoom. The day Claudia first walked through the doors ofPiccadilly Parlour, it was her first time visiting any tearoom. DestinationTea's, Angela Renals, chatted with Claudia to learn about her calling to becomea successful tearoom owner.
Owning a restaurant had always been Claudia's dream.Claudia's mother was known for her food, and for making plenty of it, in theMexican tradition, and Claudia loved being in the kitchen. So it was naturalthat when her mother fell ill and Claudia wanted to help with medical bills,she began working as a server in one of her favorite restaurants. Thirteenyears later, having become a restaurant manager, Claudia thought to herself,"If I'm putting in 60 to 70 hours a week at this job, I'm going to do thison my own."
Claudia began searching for a Mexican restaurant for sale,purchasing Mexican pottery and other supplies, but she kept getting out-bid onlocations. Then, her restaurant broker suggested they meet for lunch atPiccadilly Parlour, and Claudia, who had never had a cucumber tea sandwich inher life, "was floored." Though she had already bought everything forher dream Mexican restaurant, she instantly fell in love with the tearoom.Claudia put in a bid and, within one week, it was hers.
Seeing that the former owners had had an excellentconcept for ten years, she looked at how she could improve the tearoom bit bybit. In the same space that once housed six tables and a large gift shop area,Claudia now has 16 tables. Whereas the former tearoom hosted one event aweekend for up to 25 guests, Claudia can host three special occasions aweekend, seating up to 65 at a time. Canfield and the surrounding area are hometo a big European community, so Claudia introduced "the big cookietable," an expectation at special occasions. As a nod to her father'sUkrainian heritage, she also added homemade pierogies to the menu.
Claudia decided to keep the tearoom's originalquarter-page menu and expand it. Wanting to learn more about tearoom foods, shepoured over cookbooks and used ideas from friends and TeaTime Magazine. Experimentation and customer feedback are keyto her menu development. She cultivated strong relationships with her team ofservers, knowing it is the best way to find out about her clientele. Sheencourages the servers to tell her what the customers want, why they sendsomething back, and if a menu item isn't popular, she removes it. Claudia'strial and error process has led to the development of a six-page trifold menu,now offered at her 26-year-old tearoom!
Destination Tea: How did the dream of running a tea roomdiffer from reality?
Claudia: When thedoor closed to owning a Mexican restaurant, I honestly believe the timing wasright. Coming from a Christian-based home, my mom would say, "If it's notmeant to be, wait." The Mexican restaurant would have demanded huge hours,dealing with a crowd and the bar. In contrast, the tearoom felt peaceful,slowed me down. The setting was perfect.
Tea parties had been a tradition I shared with my fatherwhen I was a little girl. When I bought the tearoom, he had recently passedaway from a massive heart attack. I felt that having the tearoom was my way ofstill having him as part of my future. Also, my mother was sick, and I wascoordinating hospital visits with my siblings. So, the flexibility and hours ofthe tearoom worked out great. Had I purchased a restaurant with a bar license,I would have been working from 11:00 am to 2:00 am. Whereas, for the tearoom, Iwork from 7:00 am to 4:00 pm. I was so lucky to have an awesome staff at thetearoom, so that if I had to take my mom to the hospital, I had someone tocover me.
The tearoom actually encouraged me to slow down in lifeand appreciate the time that I have. We don't have a television. We don't offerWi-Fi to our guests. It's time to spend with your friend, you've entered a verydifferent world when you come into the tearoom.
Also, in a tearoom, you are reminded of what matters,after all the hard work — and it is hard work: you have to cut, make, bake.There's a process behind making good food. There are times when I am soexhausted, and then someone will pull me aside in the dining room and say,"I just want to say thank you. Last time I was here, I was with a lovedone that is no longer with me," and there we go crying. I thank God forputting me on the right path. I did their baby shower, and now I am doing theirchild's birthday party and celebrating their mom, who is 75. In this community,Piccadilly is part of their family life.
Destination Tea: To what do you attribute your longevityin the business?
Claudia: You haveto have a positive relationship with your clients. You never know who iswalking through the door and what their situation is. I am a hugger, and I dolove all my clients. I'll tell them, "I've got something in the oven, butI can give you two minutes," and I sit down with them. The elderly canfeel forgotten, so when they come in, I tell my servers to love on them.
I also get people who like to sit by themselves, and Ithink that's awesome, I welcome it. Piccadilly is a place to get away. Peoplecome because it's quiet, and when you come in, it's like, "Whoa, what didI just walk into?" You forget the stress, leave it outside, and it's amoment to realize, "I needed this, it's therapy, my mind needs a break."
We know when our customers are having the "teaconversation' and now is not the right time to interrupt them. I train myservers not to go checking on their tables all the time, just be alert of theirneeds, and quietly take care of them.
I thank God for the day and the customers, who are partof that spiritual relationship with God. I believe it's our responsibility totake care of each other. You have a cold? Here's some tea. You have to careabout people.
Destination Tea: Over time, what adjustments have youmade in your business that increased your profitability?
Claudia: You'vegot to be creative. Try it and if it doesn't work, don't regret it, becauseit's still exposure.
Here in Ohio, during wintertime, you don't know what to expect.This past winter was different, with a lot of bridal and baby showers, becausetypically weddings don't happen during snow and winter storms.
We host special events, like Tea with Santa, and with theElves. We do a Nutcracker Tea and Tea with the Easter Bunny.
I met a young lady who came into the tearoom and asked ifit would be okay for a photographer to take pictures of her here. I want peopleto do that and share it on Facebook. It's free media exposure. She comes backin to show me the photos, and she's dressed as a princess. So we started doingprincess teas, and we've had her at Piccadilly for two years.
Kids are a huge moneymaker. They've already done Chuck E.Cheese, bowling, swimming, sleepovers. They get into the stage, when they are around4 to 10 years old, that they want to do a tea party. We make it fun and keepthem busy. We may serve a kid's menu, but we make it fancy.
We look at what Disney movie is coming out and cater tothe kids. We love having kids. A lot of tearooms don't welcome kids, but Iinvest in fascinators, hats, and get a lot of donations so that they can dressup. We have princess and bridesmaid dresses and jewelry for them. I know whento tell them to use their inside voices, and it is a great opportunity for parentsto teach them manners and restaurant behavior.
For the menu, I know what my costs are. I go to thefarmer's market, and they'll give me a great deal because I always go to them.I'll buy half a bushel cheap, cut it up and freeze it. I'm going to pick abeautiful cucumber and make sure my produce looks great, and when I get a greatbatch of strawberries that we feature on the menu, I tell the servers to sellthem. I'm big into taking care of local providers because they send people tous.
Over time, I learned that I need one day off. This year Istarted closing on Mondays. That's going to be my day. Making a day off for meas an owner was hard, just to be able to take care of me. I think customersunderstand that. I need it so I can be better for them. It makes a bigdifference, so I can better serve you the other six days.
Destination Tea: How/Why did you select your current teaprovider(s)?
Claudia: When Ifirst bought the tearoom, Baltimore Coffee and Tea was their tea provider, aswell as Jackson's of Piccadilly, who discontinued their line. I continue to useBaltimore Coffee and Tea, but I also researched tea companies and called Harney& Sons, asking them to send me some samples. I sat down with my crew andsaid, "let's have tea." If I know the servers like it, I know theyare going to sell it. They are my suggestive sellers.
I keep our tea selection constant for two years, and wego from there. I am always saying, "Let's try this tea. What's the newtea?" Harney & Sons are suggestive with me. They'll send me new teas.I tell my servers, sell the teas you like, and I can tell through inventorywhat sells and doesn't.
Destination Tea: If your friend wanted to open a tearoom,and you were to say to her, "Learn from my mistakes." What advice wouldyou give?
Claudia: You haveto love what you do. If you don't like it, get out of it.
You have to take care of your servers. I don't charge myservers to eat food; it might be because of how I was brought up. They're mygirls. They're my daughters, and they are going to sell for you. People want tosee me in the tearoom, but I'm usually back in the kitchen, and my serversrepresent me on the floor. If they're not happy, they can't be a success foryou.
You have to have an awesome relationship with your staff.It's hard to find good people. A lot of my hires are recommendations from myservers, because they already know what I expect. I'm nice, and I'm firm. Imake the time for the interview. I'll go to her former employers and ask if shewas a team player. My girls know this. I tell them they were recommended, andwe'll try for a month. If you don't like it, or I don't think you'reappropriate, I'll let you go.
I deal with a lot of college students, so if it's slow, Itell them they can bring in their books and study. Everyone is off their cellphones when customers are in the parlor. I don't have to hire often becausethey stay with me for a long time. I train them to be owners by giving themlittle jobs. I want them to build relationships, like with the bank teller. Itell them, you never know if that's a professor sitting there or someone whocould give you a job when you're done working here.
Sell what you provide. Sell your customers' favorite teasin tins. We also sell our baked goods in small quantities. I'd rather use spaceto put a table and seat customers than have something decorative.
If my friend were married and had children, I'd say,"don't do it." Running a tearoom takes a lot of your family time,though I think that's in all businesses. She can do it as a woman, but she'sgoing to miss out on a lot. It depends on her support system. It depends onwhere you are in life.
Two years ago, I decided to shut down for a vacation forone week, and it was the best thing I did. I didn't have to worry about thingsbreaking or anything. I gave my body a rest, mentally shut it down.