The Seven Secrets of Thriving, Successful Tearooms

One of the most important tools to creating a successful tea house is understanding your market. It’s so important to take into consideration where you are located and what is important not just to you, but to the market you will serve. (Photo by: Imaging Australia / BigStock.com)

Just over six years ago, I decided to leave my full-time job as an executive director of a not-for-profit organization. At the time, I didn’t know what I was going to do. Having been born and raised in a beautiful historic town, I’d always had a vision of owning the adorable little gift shop that everyone loves. You know the one – you see it in all of those beautiful Hallmark Channel movies. I wanted our downtown be vibrant and I wanted my shop to be at the center of it all.

After many discussions with my accountant (who adamantly advised me to find something to put with the gift shop since the success of a stand-alone retail shop is nearly impossible), my husband and I started looking for that perfect match to create the vision we wanted in our town. One day, on his travels, he came across a tearoom and quickly called me to make the suggestion that I open one, to which I happily replied, “I don’t like tea.” Still, the idea was worth exploring, and I’m happy to say that having a tearoom and being a part of the tea industry over the past five years has been my dream come true. Not only has my tearoom become an important epicenter of our town, I have also learned a few things about tea and about business in general.

Here, I have combined my newfound love of tea and my love of business to offer you seven secrets that have been vital to the success of my tea business and hopefully will be helpful to you, too.

Secret No. 1: Identify and Understand Your Mission

Everyone starts a business with a dream or a goal in mind. Having a mission, a reason why, is a vital key to the success of anything you do. It becomes your guiding light, your road map to follow as you travel through stages of your business. In order to have a successful business, you must be moving toward something. The best way to stay focused is to make sure you believe in your mission and what you wish to accomplish in your tea business. It’s also important to realize that your mission may change over time. This is part of the growing process of a business.

When I decided to open my tearoom, my mission was to create a beautiful environment for guests to spend time together. Like the “good ole days,” I had this vision to allow guests to leave the world behind them and to immerse themselves into conversation, all within a beautiful setting. And while our mission may shift slightly, it never ends. It continues to be our main focus every day, with every encounter and with every guest.

Whether your mission is to bring good tea to your community, offer a relaxing atmosphere for your guests to escape the outside world, or to provide a vibrant and active environment to sip and chat, your mission is what keeps you focused and continues to move your business forward.

Secret No. 2: Know Your Product

I remember the first day I opened my tearoom to guests. I was so excited and eagerly awaited my first guests. I remember getting my guests seated and one of the ladies asked me if the tea she wanted contained Rooibos. I looked at her with a blank stare and told her I would check (by the way, she was ordering a rose black tea). I quickly went back and looked at the tea ingredients and then informed her that it did not. I knew little to nothing about tea when I started, aside from large commercial products found on the grocery store shelves, but that didn’t stop me from learning as much as I could about my product.

Customers will sometimes ask you the craziest questions, and as a professional in your chosen industry, you need to know the answer (granted you can’t know everything, but you need to know where to find the answer). This lends credibility to your business and also shows the customer that you take your shop and your job seriously.

In addition to you knowing your products well, having a team that knows your product and understands what your establishment offers is one of the most important aspects of your business.  Your team is your front line and most often who your guests are interacting with when they visit. It’s important that your team understands what they are selling (tea, experience, etc.). Your team is often your company’s first impression to the public, and if they don’t understand the products, guests may not return. Educating your team can be invaluable. Enroll them in a tea program (such as World Tea Academy), show that you care about them and their knowledge, and they will also feel more confident with your guests.

Secret No. 3: Understand Your Market

One of the most important tools to creating a successful tea house is understanding your market. It’s so important to take into consideration where you are located and what is important not just to you, but to the market you will serve. If you provide goods or services that your market is seeking, you will be successful. If you don’t take this into consideration, it will be hard to drive guests to your establishment. Don’t assume that because it’s something you are seeking that it’s something that people in your area are seeking. Understanding what your market needs and then fulfilling that need will almost always breed success.

When I looked to open my tearoom in my historic town, they didn’t know they needed a tearoom.  What we did needed was an elegant establishment for lunch time that accepted reservations and made guests feel pampered. We had a desire to fill that need by creating a spa-inspired design for our guests (instead of the traditional Victorian or floral décor). From the day we opened, and still today, our first-time guests who visit often say, “I can’t believe that this beautiful place is in downtown New Port Richey [Florida].” To which our response is, “This is what you should expect from New Port Richey.” Today, our town has beautiful establishments throughout that didn’t exist five years ago, including gift shops, breweries, a wine bar and restaurants, all of which cater to what our market wants – elegance.

Secret No. 4: Embrace Your Guests

One thing I have noticed about our area is that, while tea has become more “main stream,” there are still a lot of people who don’t know about tea. When we opened five years ago, many of our guests’ only knowledge of tea was of what they would see at the supermarket. And yet, when many visit a tea shop for the first time, they are often overwhelmed and reluctant to ask questions. We make it a point to welcome each guest that enters our shop and to acknowledge them when they are looking at our teas or tea-ware.  We want them to feel welcome and not intimidated by our selection. By doing this, we are able to make them feel welcomed and educate them at the same time.

In addition to helping them with tea, we also try to get to know them as people. Many times, when enjoying tea in our tearoom, they will tell us stories about their family or what they have going on in their lives. We love this personal experience with our guests and make it a point to ask them how they are doing and how their families are doing the next time we see them. We work hard to remember their favorite tea while in the tearoom, and strive to have that personal connection with them. By embracing our guests, they become invested in us, and us in them. They are not just a name on a reservation or a sale in our register. The mutual respect and adoration between us and our guests has developed into a partnership that has also become one of our strongest marketing and outreach programs (word of mouth marketing).

Secret No. 5: Market Your Business

I have had many business owners ask me why they don’t have the business volume they want.  When I hear this, I instantly ask them about marketing. What are they doing to market their business?  Oftentimes, I am met with a jumble of things that often leads to some minor social media and word of mouth from friends. When I ask why that is all they are doing, they often say it’s because of cost.  Unfortunately, in order for anyone to know you exist, you must market your business. While I understand this is often the first place businesses cut funds when times get tight, I am here to tell you that I think it’s the last place you should cut. Without marketing and promotions, people will fail to realize your business exists.

There are many cost-effective opportunities to market and increase traffic to your business. Our tearoom currently publishes a newsletter every other month. It is available in print and email and is distributed to over 900 of our current guests.  This helps keep us in the forefront of their minds and provides them with a direct tea resource in their local area. We also send out postcards for various activities and promotions, and we make sure that our local media sources receive all of this same information, as well as our elected officials, and city and county representatives.

By keeping ourselves in the forefront of our community’s mind, they are more apt to visit or think of us when looking for a nice place to visit for tea when guests come into town or when they want to catch up with a friend. They also remember our tea brand and order online or stop into our shop when they need a gift.  It’s vital to position yourself in the front of your guests’ minds so they continue to support your business.

Secret No. 6: Be Consistent

One of the most important aspects of my business is consistency. I’m not just talking about what my business does, but how it acts. Consistency encompasses many areas including: the message we send to our guests, the cleanliness of our shop and tea room, the great service guests receive when in our tearoom, our hours that we are open, and the list goes on.

Inconsistency can kill a business. Imagine if a guest comes for a cup of tea and the first time they visit it’s the best cup of tea they ever had. They buy their tea and loose-leaf tea to take home. They are excited because they had a great conversation with your team and learned all about their tea before they drank it. Now imagine your guest returning a week later, your team barely acknowledges them, quickly makes their tea (which by the way is barely warm and has little flavor because it was rushed).  The guest, feeling more like a “number,” questions if they will return again because they could have made the same cup of tea at home. Their wonderful first experience is no longer in the mind, but rather now they remember their most recent experience, which wasn’t good.

Or imagine you post your hours as 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. but when a guest arrives at 3:45 p.m. to buy a gift for a friend and you are already closed, will they return? My guess is they will probably look elsewhere for their gift next time.  Even a loyal guest of many years can become deterred by a business’s inconsistency.

Being consistent in service, in your message, and in your procedures is of utmost importance if you want to create a long standing following among your guests. Yes, making sure everything is just right takes time, but it shows your guests you truly care about what your business represents and that offering them a good experience / service / products is important to you. While you can’t be perfect every minute of every day, striving for being consistent is important to the success of any business.

Secret No. 7: Be Open to Changing with the Times

It’s no secret that 2020 was a year that many of us wish to forget, especially those of us in business.  However, one thing 2020 did for me was reinforce the need for me to revaluate my business and allow for it to change to meet the facing times.

For example, when I opened my tearoom, the one thing I vowed I would never do was offer our Traditional Afternoon Tea as a to-go option. I always felt that in order to really embrace and enjoy the tea experience, you had to be sitting in our tearoom with our beautiful atmosphere, delicate china, and floor length linens. Not only that but, would people still come to the tearoom for tea when they could get it to go?

Then our state shut restaurants down in March 2020. There was no more tea in our tearoom and we didn’t know how long it would last. That lead to me reevaluating our business and changing my stance on offering our service to go. The decision came after several long weeks of trying to figure out if we could provide a great tea service for our guests to enjoy in their own setting. It became evident to me that because of the stress caused by all of the closures, people needed tea. I didn’t have the ability to give them that wonderful, stress-reducing experience in my tearoom, so I needed to provide them a way to relax and take some time for them among the craziness at home. It was in that moment that I changed my stance on something I said I would never do.

Offering our to-go services was a good decision for our tearoom, and it reminded me that I should never say never. Being able to change – to do what is best for our guests and us – is something that we as business owners need to constantly be aware of. If there is a need and we have a way to fill it, we can change to make it happen. Change is hard, but it’s necessary, and we must always be open to it, whether we choose to do it or not.

Over the past five years, I have enjoyed enlisting the above secrets to make my tea business a success. These keys have led to us being named “Best of the Best” for best tearoom in the Tampa Bay area by readers of the Tampa Bay Times and “Best of the Bay” in 2019 and 2020 by Tampa Bay Magazine.

While these keys have worked for my tearoom, it’s important to remember that every business is different and the secrets to your success may be different than mine. Whether operating a tearoom, a brick-and-mortar tea shop, or an online retail space, these seven secrets are sure to help you build a strong foundation so you can have success for years to come.

Kelly Hackman, owner of The White Heron Tea & Gifts and Driftwood Tea Company in historic downtown New Port Richey, Florida, is a World Tea Academy Certified Tea Sommelier and Certified Tea Specialist, and she’s also an Etiquette Consultant. Hackman has created a unique tea escape at her tearoom, which has assisted in transforming her town’s historic landscape and assists in drawing guests to the area from throughout the Southeastern United States. Visit The White Heron Tea and Gifts online at TheWhiteHeronFL.com and Driftwood Tea Company at DriftwoodTeaCompany.com.