Tea rooms and antiques are a natural fit

Mothers and daughters often work together

by Leigh Elmore

Just as surely as Currier goes with Ives, the tea room has become a ubiquitous companion business to the antique trade. Tea rooms and antique malls simply go hand in hand because they complement each other so well.

Vanessa Fahle, owner of the Greenwood Country Tearoom. (photos by Leigh Elmore)

As one devoted patron said, "After we eat we get to go and do our favorite thing and that is to shop. We are already in an antique shop and flea market all in one." That was the comment of Rita McClernon of Springfield as she was enjoying an early lunch with her friend Ardy Labenz at the Spring Creek Tea Room in Ozark, MO. Both are regular customers.

"This is the best tea room ever," said Labenz, who makes the 10-mile drive from Springfield to Ozark frequently for lunch. "Sometimes I come three times a week. My car knows the way," she said. "I've been coming for 15 years. It's therapeutic. You just walk in the doors and you immediately feel better."

The holy trinity

Such devotion to a lunch spot is not uncommon among the "ladies who lunch" amidst the treasures of the past. Regular customers are the norm in the tea rooms we visited in Ozark, Odessa and Greenwood, MO. And this being May, the month for mothers, business should be brisk in tearooms around the Midwest as daughters (and sons) treat Moms to delicious lunches in stylish rooms.

Owner Brenda Barner (left) and waitress Christy Reed at The Tea Room in Odessa.

In fact, in the tea rooms we visited, mothers and daughters often run the business. For example, Brenda Barner and her daughter, Vanessa Fahle, own and operate The Tea Room located in the Silver Fox Antique Mall in Odessa as well as Greenwood Country Tearoom in the Greenwood Antique Mall. They've owned the Greenwood facility for two and a half years and have been in Odessa for a year now.

All told, Barner has been in the tea room business for seven years.
She described the "holy trinity" of tea room fare. "There are three things that are must-haves for any tea room menu, garden salads, chicken salads and quiche," she said.

Delectable variations start from there. "I have a dozen recipes in my head." And while explaining that the clientele drives the menu, she does try to offer enough variation and different ingredients to keep things interesting, even for the regulars.

"We're using lots of leeks this spring," Barner said, "just trying to give our customers perhaps a more epicurean experience."

Barner usually oversees the Odessa room, while her daughter, Vanessa Fahle, runs the operation in Greenwood. Fahle has worked in the restaurant business virtually her whole career from age 16. On developing their menus, Fahle says, "We started with the usuals (salad, chicken salad and quiche) and began experimenting from there," she said. Sandwiches are an important staple. "We have a summer veggie sandwich that is very popular along with our gourmet grilled cheese sandwich that we vary a little bit every day," Fahle said. Yes, the croissant club and turkey sandwiches are also available, each with a distinctive twist, ala Fahle.

"What you see on the menus in our rooms is very personal. It really depends on who is in the kitchen, because the chef is in control," Barner said. "My daughter and I cook very differently." And judging from the steady stream of customers in each tea room, the public likes the way both women cook.

In Ozark, the Spring Creek Tea Room is a totally family run operation with owners Kerry and Brenda May running the kitchen, and daughter Crystal Crouse supervising the front of the house.

Not entirely a woman's world

Kerry and Brenda May, owners of Silver Creek with daughter Crystal Crouse.

In a business largely dominated by women, Kerry May concedes that he may be the only man running a tea room in Missouri. The Mays are unusual in that not only do they own the tea room; the family also owns the antique mall where it is located, and another mall across town, The Riverview Antique Mall.

In 1998, the Mays bought the hulking gray building that houses the mall and tea room, located just off the courthouse square in Ozark.

"The building was completely empty, so we started from scratch. I think we started out with five tables in a corner and a tiny kitchen. As business increased by word of mouth we gradually added tables. Today we can seat close to 100 people," he said.

Best of friends Rita McClernon (left) and Ardy Labenz, both of Springfield frequent the Spring Creek Tea Room in Ozark.

In fact, his devoted customers McClernon and Labenz, say that often people are waiting for tables to become free. "I've learned to get here at 10 a.m. so I can get a table," Labenz said.

"The key to success is consistency and quality," Kerry May said. "That has worked to bring in a good regular clientele." Those are the regional residents who have Spring Creek on their dining radar screens. The tourist trade in Branson and Springfield also adds to the numbers during the summer months.

Brenda May finishes icing the cakes sold on a recent morning

Of course, word has gotten around about Brenda May's coconut cream pies and the amazing cakes that she prepares each day.

"Brenda has 125 different desserts that she rotates in and out," Kerry May said. "She bakes 40 cakes a week, about a dozen pies and two cheesecakes a day." The desserts and everything else on the menu are all fresh made from scratch in the tiny kitchen.

The cakes started disappearing immediately.

"We offer about 50 different varieties of soups over the course of a year," May said, along with sandwiches and the holy trinity. "It helps to have variety in the menu, especially for the regulars who need to have more of a choice over time."
While tea rooms are predominately owned and patronized by women, each owner we spoke with appreciated their male customers.

"We get a good mix of men and women," May said. "A lot of men will come in for lunch with their wives." "I bring my entire family here," said Bates City resident Anita Turner of The Tea Room in Odessa. "My husband enjoys it very much." This day she was lunching with her friend Sheila Lidberg of Lone Jack, "my church sister," Turner said.


Good places to work

Besides offering great places to eat, tea rooms offer good places to work for mothers and students alike. For one thing, the hours are better than in the regular restaurant business, as food service must obey the hours that the malls are open.

Sara Long, a waitress at Spring Creek.

"We try to hire locally as much as possible," said Brenda Barner. "It's a perfect job for moms and retirees. I like people who come to work."

Odessa resident Christy Reed was a stay-at-home mother before taking a job a The Tea Room. "I can get here in less than five minutes. I do my job and I'm off before my kids get home from school."

Sara Long, a waitress at Spring Creek for more than six years, echoes those sentiments. "I'm a single mother of four boys, and the flexible schedule here lets me have my afternoons and evenings with my kids."

Long then bends down and hugs customer Ardy Labenz. "Ardy's my pal!" she enthused.


A business model

The relationship between tea rooms and the antique malls where they are located are certainly mutually beneficial.

Lexington residents Joy Seitz (left) and Mickey Sinnit enjoy a girlfriends' outing at The Tea Room.

"We have an excellent relationship with the owners of Silver Fox Antique Mall," said Barner. "We think we help draw customers to the shop and vice versa. We enjoy working with antique dealers."

"It's rare to see a tea room that isn't associated with an antique shop anymore," Fahle said.
Barbara Greeson, one of the owners of Silver Fox agreed. "It's been a real good fit. People tend to shop when they come in to eat," she said. "Plus, you can get the best bread pudding you've ever eaten."

A quiet corner at the Greenwood
Country Tearoom.

Tea rooms are not just for lunch anymore. Tea room owners love special occasions. Fahle reports that she and her mother do a lot of baby and bridal showers at the Greenwood Country Tearoom on the weekends. The Mays also work a lot of parties and showers at Spring Creek Tea Room in Ozark. "We are a special occasion place," he said.

Running a tea room isn't for hobbyists. Restaurant work is hard and extends beyond the open hours, at least for the owners.

"I'm on the job six to seven days a week," Fahle said. "If I'm not here, I'm shopping."
"If anyone thinks this is not a hard business to be in, hasn't been in it before," says Kerry May, as he darts from one task to another during a busy lunch hour recently. "But it really has been enjoyable."

Customers like McClernon and Labenz help in that department.

"The regulars will come here on Tuesdays and Fridays," said McClernon. "Actually, I know people who have become best friends simply by coming in here on a regular basis.

"Besides, this is the best chicken salad anywhere. The cakes are amazing, such unusual flavors. And the portions are ample," McClernon said. "Ardy, we haven't done this in so long, let's come back next week!"

Courtyard on Mission Road is coming

Regular customers have been lamenting the closing of Bloomsbury Bistro, the café associated with the Mission Road Antiques Mall in Prairie Village, KS. But fear not, a new tea room is on the way.

The new Courtyard on Mission Road will hold its grand opening on May 7, ushering in a new owner and entirely new menu at the popular Kansas City area mall, says mall owner Casey Ward.

Judith Dobson, a European trained chef will create a destination restaurant in the renovated food service space. She currently owns the Courtyard on Main in McPherson KS. Her daughter, Kyndra Dobson, will manage the new tea room.

Leigh Elmore can be contacted at editor@discoverypub.com.

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