I often receive reviews at TeaGuide where the reviewer notes that they’ve just made their annual visit to a tea room. Whether it’s a Mother’s Day theme tea or mom’s birthday tea with her three daughters who flew in from out of town, I always kind of cringe when I read this. Annual? As in: you go there only once a year? Then how do you expect the tea room to still be there next year? How can a tea room survive with such infrequent business?
The sad fact is that many of them can’t. And the type of tea room that seems to be most impacted is the fancy Victorian style. It’s a rare month when I don’t receive one or more notifications that a Victorian tea room has cut down their hours or just closed completely.
Why is this so? Well, often these tea rooms are perceived as venues for celebrations, not for regular visits. One reason is the cost factor: given the combination of specialty foods, intensive labour, and elegant décor, afternoon tea can be pricey when it’s done right. Another is the need for planning ahead. Afternoon tea is usually served during specific hours and days, and seating is often limited, so advance reservations are a must.
Compare this to the tea bar or café-style tea room, where customers can pop in for a pot of tea and a scone or sandwich almost any time – and they do, sometimes daily. These casual spots are open six or seven days a week, usually from morning until evening, and later if they offer entertainment. No need to dress up, and you can bring your laptop. Unless you’ve with a big group, reservations aren’t necessary. And it costs a whole lot less than formal afternoon tea.
A number of owners of Victorian-style tea rooms have told me that their original tea-only business model simply is not sustainable. One solution has been to expand into a full-service restaurant or catering service. Successful brunch, lunch, dinner, and private parties with competitive pricing subsidizes the tea service. Another profit centre is their extensive retail areas for gifts, antiques, home décor, and the like. Other tea rooms are open just a few days a week, with their owners keeping their “day jobs” to subsidize them.
Anyone who’s thinking of opening a tea room needs to consider which model is more viable: smaller individual sales but much more customer traffic, or a tea service that is limited to fewer customers who are each willing to spend significantly more. Based on what I’ve seen over the past few years, a growing number of tea room entrepreneurs are choosing the café model.
So are Victorian tea rooms becoming obsolete? Well, there’s one other factor to consider: what you might call the tea room dream. As long as there are grandmothers with granddaughters, Red Hat ladies, and those of us who want, at least for a few hours, to enjoy a bit of old-time graciousness – and as long as there are entrepreneurs who enjoy creating this elegance for us – there will continue to be Victorian style tea rooms. At least I hope so.
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