Sunday, January 24, 2010

You don't have to cross the Pond for tea

Owner Theresa Gaffney of the British-themed restaurant and tearoom Sally Lunn's in Chester can tell you all sorts of stories, ranging from her career in the music industry ("I was a musician, and I was signed to Atlantic records,") to the new book she's just written ("I'm a writer. I have a book that I just got published and I'm trying to get a movie deal for it.").

One of her most interesting stories is how her family moved from England, set up an antiques shop in Florida, lost that business and eventually came to own multiple Sally Lunn's. The Chester tearoom opened in 1991.

"When we first came to Chester, this part of the building was an employment agency," Gaffney says. "We looked everywhere for a store, and nothing was available."

Rewind to the '80s, and Gaffney and her family are moving from England to America, leaving their successful business across the Pond.

"My parents had a hotel and a pub and a very famous restaurant in England," Gaffney says, taking a sip of tea, "We sold it to emigrate here. My parents came to Florida with a lot of money, and we invested it. My mum didn't want to do food anymore . . . so we decided we were going to do an antique shop."

A poor location and the loss of the antiques on the way to their store put them in a bind, and they wound up having to auction the remainder of the antiques they wound up receiving months later. But instead of having a typical auction, they tried something a little different.

"We advertised it as an English auction with an afternoon tea, and the tea was more successful than the auction," Gaffney says. "And that's how we ended up back in the food business.

"My parents opened one shop, and the great thing about America is that you can grow fast. Within two or three years, they had five or six tea shops going."

Gaffney wasn't too fond of Florida, and she moved up to New York to pursue a music career. But after her father suffered a major heart attack, she left show biz and came to New Jersey to start a Sally Lunn's in Chester.

"We have a good product here. It's something very different," Gaffney says, "We have a lot of repeat customers."

The shop is at once ornate and quaint, stuffed to the rafters with pictures, glass cases and other items that fascinate customers as they wait for their order to be delivered.

"The Victorians were famous for cluttering their places," Gaffney says, "and that's what we try to do here."

She also says that everything in the shop is for sale, from pictures on the wall to the chairs.

"When my mum opened her (tearoom) in Florida, everything had a price tag on it," Gaffney says, "She decided she would sell the chairs. But it got to a point that she would have a table of six come in, and then they would walk out with all of the chairs. . . . That's why none of the chairs here match."

While there's plenty to please the eyes, but it's the food that really impresses here, with traditional English dishes such as Tiddy Oggi — ground sirloin, carrots, turnips, potatoes and leeks, wrapped in homemade pastry — and scones, which are accompanied by homemade clotted cream (this is made in a manner different from that used in England.)

Sally Lunn's also serves Cockney pie: "It's like a really high stacked pizza, and we sell so much of it," Gaffney says. "People come in here and say, 'Oh, I was in England, and I had the Cockney pie, and yours is much better.' Since it doesn't exist in England, we just smile and thank them."

The restaurant has teas from all over the world — " more than 70 flavors of loose tea," Gaffney says, "In England, most place have, like, five."

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