Steeped in Tradition

Tea time at the Brown Palace Hotel involves ornate china, trays of finger food, and pastries.
Tea time at the Brown Palace Hotel involves ornate china, trays of finger food, and pastries. Brown Palace Hotel

Old-fashioned tea houses show restaurants how to stir up the afternoon daypart.

Just as specialty coffee shops became the late 20th century version of bars and taverns where people meet or hang out, the concept of serving hot or cold tea—with its healthy aura and lower caffeine volume—could do the same in the afternoon. Beloved by Europeans and Asians for centuries, tea is shedding its reputation as a bygone brew and giving the U.S. restaurant industry a few ideas along the way.

“The beauty of tea, more than coffee, is that it is a low preparation, low labor-cost item that has a higher margin than almost anything else on the menu,” says Brian Keating, a specialty tea market analyst and founder of Sage Group in Seattle.

“Later in the afternoon, people may not want coffee,” or a great deal of caffeine, and “they may step out of the office for tea,” says Joe McKinnon, national tea trainer and foodservice marketing coordinator for Oakland, California-based Numi Organic Tea.

In trendier areas, artistic tea drinks are gaining favor, McKinnon notes. “I see people in some establishments with tea and fruit mixers and tea spritzers and mocktails,” he says. He also sees tea and smoothie combinations gaining momentum, as diners seek a healthier version of a smoothie.

Hotels and teahouses have long offered afternoon tea to provide a mid-day repast and add business during a normally slow time, and more restaurants are catching on to the idea. “Some of the finer places will run upscale afternoon teas with cakes and finger sandwiches,” says Peter Goggi, president of the Tea Association of the USA. “They will prepare tea in a special way and serve it all with high-end china and silverware.”

There are now about 4,000 tea­houses in the United States, according to the association. One classic example of a European tearoom is Ladurée, which has operations in 25 countries, including three in the United States. The latest, in New York’s Soho neighborhood, is also a full-service restaurant and retail outlet.

Founded in 1862, the original Paris establishment is known for its pastries, such as the double-decker macaron, and quickly added a tearoom that became popular with women, who were not allowed in cafés at the time. Elisabeth Holder, co-president of Ladurée USA, acknowledges tea has not been as popular in America as in Europe, and ascribes that to a certain degree of cultural differences. “Here, the culture is to go fast, to eat and drink in the street, and not take the time to be together and share a pastry,” she explains.


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