Tea, with a squeeze of optimism
“Tea is just wonderful!” says Melissa Oraibi. “We’ve found a way to infuse a modern flair to classical tea at the Wenham Tea House (Wenham, MA) and we’re appealing to a wide spectrum— young, crossover customers who come for our full lunch and dinner menus to these die-hard ladies who “like to do lunch, baby.” And many in between.
As the world opens up to life-after-Covid, Melissa and her husband and chef Brenden Crocker are brimming with optimism.
The new proprietors of a tea house that dates back to 1912, when it was established as a community gathering spot that served as a bedrock to the charming North Shore, Massachusetts town, see blue sky ahead.
Taking the bull by the horns, and the teapots by the handles, Melissa and Brenden cooked up a plan to offer a modern take on tea, which fans out into a weekly menu of lunches, tea, dinners, and Sunday brunch.
Though at first some old-timers raised an eyebrow at the whiff of change, once they sunk their teeth into the offering of rich sandwiches — stacked burgers, Rubens, a modern twist on the BLT— or relaxed with a bowl of French onion soup, and sampled from a deep and varied menu, believers they all became.
In this week’s Q&A with Boxerbrand’s blog Recipe for Success, Melissa talks tea, with a squeeze of optimism.
Boxerbrand: How did you freshen up a 110-year-old concept?
Melissa: Well, for starters, I had my eye on the Wenham Tea House for years. So I had ideas percolating for a while. And when it became available, I told Brenden it was perfect for us. But it needed updating. I wanted modernize it.
The tea house had been operating as a breakfast and lunch model, but one of our first changes was to do away with breakfast because it’s a drag on labor and there’s too much competition. What we do instead is the finest Sunday brunch around. And during the week we offer lunch Wednesday through Saturday. On Friday and Saturday we offer both a full afternoon tea service and a well-crafted dinner at night.
We also sought to revamp the experience of tea. I’ve had tea in England, as well as at the Four Seasons and the Boston Public Library. And I’ve learned the key element is that the tea needs to be a visually appealing event. It’s special.
We decided to get whimsical with our tea pots. No two are alike. We have gorgeous pots from Australia in funky patterns. Our room wall color is a pale green, very neutral, and the color is the art on the walls, teapots, dessert towers and our platings.
Boxerbrand: Tell me about your tea and sandwiches.
Melissa: We did a lot of research on our tea before we landed on local vendor Harney & Sons Fine Teas Company. We do loose tea in our teapots, and we also sell the teas we serve in tins.
We also enhanced the menu. In addition to the classic tea with bacon cheddar and black currant scones, which are served with clotted cream, lemon and British jellies, we offer a wide array of savory sandwiches, from a chicken salad with curry, dried cranberries and walnuts—there’s always a play on curried chicken. We also offer egg salad, cucumber sandwiches, ham & brie with fig jam. And there’s a baguette with roasted portobello cognac with red pepper jelly and goat cheese.
Our dinner menu is fabulous! On weekends, we offer cognac sea scallops, a burgundy dijon braised short rib, to rack of lamb and butter roasted filet mignon au poivre.
Boxerbrand: How did you attract your customers?
Melissa: My husband had a following as a chef. We’re both deeply experienced in restaurants, and after working at Wild Horse Cafe, we had a little pub in Salem, Mass., and our next incarnation was in Manchester called Black Arrow. So a lot of our past customers followed us. Additionally, the Tea House had a longtime following, people in their 60s and 70s who have been coming here since they were little kids. And we also get a lot of support from the Wenham Village Improvement Society, which owns the building we’re in, and has always fostered this place as a community gathering spot.
Boxerbrand: How do the old-timers take you in?
Melissa: A lot of the longtime customers are just coming back, after Covid. And we may get a 90-year-old guy who expects exactly the same thing, and has something to say about our changes, but his wife is very happy, and he is too, once he tries it.
And the new customers who’ve followed Brenden are bringing a new demographic to the tea concept, even though they’re coming through the door for Brenden’s cooking.
Boxerbrand: How have the menu covers worked out?
Melissa: I first started buying Boxerbrand menu covers at the restaurant we both worked, the Wild Horse Cafe. We had brown Ostrich, baby! Menus, and those things held up forever! We had them at Wild Horse for 15 years, and we took the bar menus with us when we left. We had burgundy sleeve menus that lasted about 20 years. We had them at our pub in Salem and finally retired them there. — The Wenham Tea House of Wenham uses Boxerbrand’s Café Line in its table presentation.Thank you!