A conversation with Kim Jordy of Tea Leaves & Thyme
Meet Kim Jordy, proprietress of Woodstock, Georgia’s Tea Leaves & Thyme teahouse, now celebrating its 20th anniversary. She tells her story to fellow afternoon tea enthusiast Angela Renals of Destination Tea, sharing lessons learned in the making of one of Georgia’s most popular afternoon tea venues.
Angela: Let’s start with the story of how Tea Leaves & Thyme came to be.
Kim: Well, I have always been in food service. I started waiting tables for my first job at 16. My love of food and tea comes from my parents. My father was hotel restaurant trained in Denmark. My mom was English, so we would have tea and cookies every day, and though I’m still not sure how, she always got us to bring her tea in bed. During my 18 years as a stay-at-home-mom (the best job I ever had), I waited tables three nights a week, and then one day, I saw an article about Magnolia & Ivy restaurant in Southern Living. They were offering a course on how to open a tearoom and in fact, my favorite kind of restaurant had become the ladies’ luncheon place, so I signed up. This was 22 years ago when the tea industry in the U.S. was very small, long before World Tea Expo. Our teachers were Bruce Richardson, Dorothea Johnson, Norwood Pratt, and others who were back then just getting their start in the tea business.
I began searching for a location, buying china, testing recipes and menus, running the numbers with my father, and finally found this cute little spot in Woodstock: the old historic post office, across from city park. In November of ’98, we opened the original Tea Leaves and Thyme, where we could seat 25 people. Within a few months, we realized we needed to be able to seat more, so we moved out some of the antiques and added more chairs to serve 40 people. We were there for 5 years, before moving to our current Woodstock location, in the Historic Dawson House — built in 1908 — where we now seat 70 people.
Angela: How did the dream of running a tea room differ from the reality?
Kim: I remember a couple of months in, crying to my husband, saying, “I own a tearoom, and I don’t even get to have a cup of tea.” He said, “That’s a simple fix: go in 15 minutes early and make yourself a cup of tea.” I learned that the tearoom owner’s experience is very different from the tearoom guest. We might dream of opening a tearoom thinking it’s going to be just like entertaining at home with all these warm, fuzzy feelings, but in reality, you’re running a business. There’s profits and loss and time constraints.
Angela: To what do you attribute your longevity in the business?
Kim: We’ve just been blessed since day one. One secret to our success: I’ve surrounded myself with wonderfully talented, giving people who enjoy serving, and they stay with us. Our manager has been with us 17 years, and we have many more wonderful people who have been with us for 5 years, 7 years, from our kitchen manager to our dishwasher. I could not do this without them. I also think consistency matters. My chicken salad should taste the same as it did 20 years ago and it should taste the same every day. Every now and then there’s an issue with an ingredient, but overall, we don’t have a lot of variance.
Angela: Over time, what adjustments have you made in your business that increased your profitability?
Kim: My original dream was to stay small, to have a little tearoom, but we had to grow to meet the demand. I knew we needed a menu to draw people back in weekly, as opposed to just being a special event place, so we developed that. I knew I couldn’t survive on tea service alone, so we incorporated lunch. We are now a full service restaurant, but our main focus is on tea and tea service.
We’ve also increased the size of our gift shop over the years to help make the business profitable. For most restaurants, any money they are losing in the kitchen, they are gaining through alcohol sales, and we don’t have alcohol sales. So we offset that with the gift shop, which intentionally houses our checkout for the restaurant. We have a captive audience. They’ve just experienced tea and now they want the teacups, teapots and tea strainers to bring that experience home.
Angela: How/Why did you select your current tea provider(s)?
Kim: I’m very loyal, I have always had the same tea purveyors since the beginning. I like to dance with the one I came with. I met my purveyors 22 years ago, when the industry was very small. These folks were so helpful in teaching me about tea, offering tastings, samples, answering millions of questions. I like how they source their tea: they have relationships with a lot of the growers, and respect for the people who grow and harvest it. I like the quality of the tea, the assortment, the customer service. I have 70 teas on the menu and people come back for the same teas.
Angela: If your friend wanted to open a tearoom, and you were to say to her, "Learn from my mistakes...," what advice would you give?
Kim: First I’d say, "Follow your dream." I would remind her that owning a tearoom doesn’t mean that you’re going to be taking tea on a daily basis. Some people say it’s going to be their retirement job, and they need to know this is a 60- to 70-hour work-week if you’re doing it with just one other person. It’s a full time job. I'd also say you can’t please everyone, no one’s going to do it like you do (even if you have the most amazing people), and I would advise early on to realize that the tearoom can run without you.
You will have tea connoisseurs come in, so it helps to have a little knowledge (Kim has a Level II certificate from STI [Specialty Tea Institute]). More importantly, I’ve often thought of offering a three-day bootcamp, so that every employee learns to work the front of the house, in the kitchen, and trains on the phones to know how to take reservations — that was the hardest thing for us to figure out. I think that would be much more useful.
It really is amazing being a part of our guests’ celebrations, their joys, their birthdays, their anniversaries. We have groups we see every year because it's their tradition to celebrate a certain holiday with us. Even deaths, when they return to honor the lady who’s passed, by having her place setting still there. It is a lot of work, but there are so many good things that make it worth it.