My Underground Tea Room: A Case Study

Tanya runs an underground tea room in South London, serving champagne, fine teas, finger sandwiches and a selection of home-baked cakes to punters on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. We caught up with her to discover just what her dream job involves.

Q. So, how did you come up with the idea for an underground tea room?

A. I’ve always loved the ritual of afternoon tea and am forever serving up sweet treats to friends. When I found out that underground restaurants and tea rooms were popping up here and there about the city, I was keen to get involved. I was drawn to the idea of meeting new people, baking for them and making a little cash from my hobby.

Q. What experience do you offer your customers?

A. First of all, I refer to my customers as guests. The idea is to make them feel welcomed. In order to play down the commercial aspect and enhance the special side of my tea room experience, guests pay £20 each in advance via PayPal. All my communications take place via email, which adds to the air of mystery and expectancy I like to create. I email guests the location and exact timing details a week before their Afternoon Tea. Greeting everyone with a glass of champagne and a small but Decadent Brownie, I serve eight guests at a sitting. All eight may have arranged to visit together, or they could be made up of several groups of strangers. All my guests sit at a table in my living room. Meeting new people and enjoying food with them is all part of the experience. I then serve up a series of courses. It’s a lengthy, indulgent, glorious process. I aim for my guests to leave feeling relaxed, pampered and on a sugar high!

Q. If your guests are encouraged to savour such treat-time, what goes on behind the scenes? Is it a tough job?

A. I love baking, so I’m always pinching myself that I’m getting paid to do it. That being said, it is hard work. I try to cut corners where appropriate though. I place the majority of my ingredient orders online to save on time. All of Friday is spent baking brownies, cupcakes and sponges in preparation for the weekend’s sittings. I also prepare the meats and vegetables for my guests’ finger sandwiches on a Friday. On the morning of the sitting, I bake fresh bread for the sandwiches and assemble everything. I like to have everything ready before my guests arrive so that I’m calm and collected and can dedicate my attention to ensuring that they go away with happy memories of their afternoon tea.

Q. How do you market your business?

A. To be honest, most of it is through word of mouth, both in person and online. I also have a website, a Twitter account and have been featured on a number of food blogs and online magazines. I regularly invite bloggers to tea. They have proved invaluable in generating a buzz around what I do.

Q. Do you have any favourite personal touches?

A. I certainly do. Each guest chooses their tea from an extensive menu and receives an individual, vintage tea pot. Cups, saucers and plates are mismatched, which everyone seems to love. Generally, I serve traditional afternoon tea staples but like to give a unique twist to things. My salmon sandwiches include Japanese horseradish, for example. I have also modernised the sweet side of the afternoon tea menu, serving cupcakes and sticky brownies stuffed with pistachios.

Q. How is your business doing financially?

A. I am currently making more than enough to break even. Whilst my cake baking business is a great source of supplementary income, my profits are certainly not enough to live on. I rely on savings and a part time job at a local florist. However, I’m thinking of branching out and producing cakes and sweet treats for corporate events during the week. I’m currently working out what the set-up costs of this will be and putting together a potential business plan. It’s something I’d like to do but I won’t rush into it lightly. I’m not keen on putting all my eggs in one basket, so to speak. Most of all though, I’m just so happy to have the time to bake, perfect my recipes and give my guests a rare experience.

With the current vogue for underground restaurants and supper clubs, underground tea rooms may turn out to be the next big thing. The high value that Tanya places on offering a unique, memorable afternoon tea experience is key to the success of her cake baking business. All those seeking to make a profit from their baking talents should think imaginatively about how they can offer something new and inspiring to their customers.

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