As the middle child between two brothers, Suzanne Richardson grew up looking forward to the special attention lavished upon her during elegant Sunday afternoon teas with her step-grandmother.
Richardson, who so admired Madeleine Lawrence Richardson that she named her daughter Maddie for her, lovingly recalls how grown up she felt in the doting company of the refined, impeccably dressed retired schoolteacher.
“Those teas opened up something in me and changed my life,” said Richardson, whose family operates Richardson’s Dairy in Middleton. “From that time on, I started collecting everything having to do with tea. I hoped that someday, I’d make others feel as special as Madeleine made me feel.”
While the introduction of afternoon tea can be traced to England in 1840, the tradition of enjoying tea, finger sandwiches, scones, and mini desserts has long been popular on this side of the pond.
At Suzanne’s Victorian Tea Room & Shoppe, which Richardson opened within Lowell’s Western Avenue studios in March, seatings are available by reservation on Saturdays and Sundays at noon and 2:30 p.m. She dresses in period clothing and offers her handmade Victorian-style hats for guests. There is no dress code — although Richardson encourages digging out “that outfit in the back of your closet that’s so fancy you never wear it.”
For parties of up to 20, Richardson gives talks about various traditions, introduces Victorian games, and provides period gowns stitched by Western Avenue artist Emily Rapley so guests may dress the part of stepping back in time. The “vintage niceties” for sale include tea sets and accoutrements, artwork, handmade linens, soaps and lotions, upcycled vintage jewelry, gifts by local artisans, and her signature heart-shaped sugar cubes with organic rose petals.
Richardson said first-time visitors’ reactions of wonder, followed by contented relaxation, “lighten my heart.”
“Tea rooms are special,” she said. “They offer a reprieve and some elegance to daily life, which is typically pretty inelegant.”
According to Sarah Erlandson, who runs Fancy That in Walpole with husband Brad McCracken, tea rooms offer unique experiences because each is a reflection of its owner.
“Fancy That is a literal expression of my true north,” said Erlandson, a former WBCN producer for “The Big Mattress” radio show who notes she “came to the planet with a love and reverence for a bygone era.”
Motivated by the inability to rent a proper tea cup and saucer for her afternoon tea wedding reception, Erlandson launched a vintage rental business in 2003. Eight years later, she opened a tea-themed gift shop in Walpole that evolved into the English-style tea room in 2013.
Believing that afternoon tea should be a “treat for all senses,” Erlandson carefully selects the room’s antiques and décor, sets out her best linens and favorite china, and designs a monthly menu complemented by a selection of more than 40 teas. Reservations are available Wednesday through Sunday, as well as Monday holidays.
A growing collection of handwritten and e-mailed thank you notes is testament, she said, to her guests’ appreciation for the opportunity to set time aside to “experience joy with the people they love.”
“People have come here to celebrate birthdays and the end of chemotherapy. It’s also a place to pause, reflect, and show gratitude for one another,” she added. “I really feel driven to do this – and also very honored to be this conduit for people to make memories.”
Sally Collura, who opened The Tea Leaf in Waltham in 2005, stocks teas and related accoutrements, gifts, and Waltham-branded products online as well as within her 1,000-square-foot storefront. The 24-seat tea room is open Wednesday through Sunday by reservation, as well as for tea tastings and other special events.
While Fancy That and Suzanne’s Victorian Tea Room & Shoppe cater to guests 12 and older, Tea Leaf welcomes children as young as 8 years old with special menu items. The entire afternoon tea service can be gluten-free, and an a la carte menu of soups, salads, and sandwiches is available Wednesday through Friday.
“It’s a rewarding business, but people don’t realize how tough it is,” said Collura, who designed her tea room, regularly attends trade shows for new merchandise, writes a monthly newsletter, maintains her website and Facebook page, and handles all food preparation, serving, and cleanup duties.
In fact, the former Waltham city councilor and host/producer of “Around Town” on WCAC-TV has been approached so often for advice that she now offers consulting services for those dreaming of opening their own tea room or tea shop.
Topics include business plans, location, landlord and lease negotiations, working with attorneys, local regulations and permits, contractors, kitchen plan and store layout, décor and style, vendors, food and supplies, menu design, staff training, tea business and employee policies, competition, advertising, and social media.
Despite the labor-intensive aspect of the business, Collura says having loyal customers become friends over the years makes it all worthwhile. “You won’t get rich,” she noted, “so there’s only one reason to do it: if you love it.”
Tea Leaf serves a bigger purpose, as well.
“The ritual of taking tea knows no one kind of person, group, ethnicity, or age,” Collura said. “Sharing time and tea unites us all, whether we realize it or not.”