How we got here

crop house small

Where we are now

In the Spring of 1989, a friend and I began selling some craft items at local street fairs and shows.  I was a year out of college and was an assistant buyer for a local chain of Christmas stores.  I  had worked in a very nice gift shop and a flower shop in high school and college and did lots of crafts in my spare time, so selling our wares was an obvious move.  After the first couple of shows, we quickly realized that we would have to give up our social lives and make our merchandise in all our spare time if we were to keep our booth full.  Since I had a buyer badge for our regional wholesale gift mart, it was an easy decision to supplement our handmade stock with other goods.  We sold Yankee Candles and some stationery products at our next show and they were a hit.  Several shows later, we were basically a gift shop that travelled, with a few craft items to cutesy up the displays!  By November of 1989, I had quit my job and we had a short-term lease for a little space inside Aurora Village Mall in North Seattle.  We did okay, considering that the mall was in steady state of decline.  (No wonder they were willing to take a risk with two young girls signing a commercial lease!)  By the middle of the next year, the mall was nearly empty and we found out that they were getting ready to demolish the place, so we began looking for another mall that would take a chance on us.

In the Spring of 1991, we moved into our brand new location at Factoria Mall.  We had hired an architect and chosen a contractor to build out a previously unfinished space, designed a sign/logo and had a trompe l’oiel painter cover the storefront with ivy.  And ordered loads of merchandise to fill the 1500 square feet.  This was to be our home for the next 15 years.

floral front

Store front of The Secret Garden gift shop in Factoria Mall

Things went along smoothly for a long time.  We had artist signing parties every so often, and set up vignettes in the middle of the mall featuring exciting new products.  We dealt with the Beanie Baby craze and the long lines that went along with each new release and had a great staff who enabled us to have days off, take vacations and enjoy life.  Then in 2001, the coffee shop that was next door to us closed, leaving an empty space between us and the center court of the mall.  For the next year, several different businesses occupied the space, but none were viable, at least in that location.  In 2002, we (along with my sister Mary) got an idea to hold a tea party on Mother’s Day weekend for our good customers.  We asked mall management if they would let us use the empty space since it still had a couple of sinks and big counters.  They gave us the go-ahead, so we began scouting out tables and chairs at yard sales and gave everything shabby a quick coat of white paint.   We added curtains and table runners made of pretty floral sheets (from Goodwill) ,  washed up lots of the china we sold in the gift shop, borrowed a few pictures and wreaths off the walls of the shop, brought in a few things from our homes and began planning our menu.

Tea Room Interior

The Secret Garden Tea Room interior in Factoria Mall

Then we applied for the temporary permit from the health department.  Oops!  It turns out that the permit would cost more than all of our tables, chairs and decor combined!  And it was valid for 21 days.  Since we sold out our Mother’s Day Tea really quickly, we decided that the only way to justify the high cost of the permit, was to use it more than just the two days.  After all, the rest of it was set up and ready to go.  So we came up with a couple of sandwiches and salads to offer for lunch on the days following the Mother’s Day tea and to our surprise, people actually came!  We had sort of figured we might catch a few folks who couldn’t get tickets to the tea and mall employees looking for something new, but everyone who came loved our food and said they’d be “regulars” if we opened permanently.

We hired a restaurant consultant, Mark (being handy and all) built out our kitchen, and our families worked tirelessly getting ready to open  with real kitchen equipment.  Mary and I experimented in the kitchen daily to come up with our recipes and we are serving those same foods today.  Our scones, cranberry salad, pea salad and Cashew Chicken Salad are still our most popular menu items.  November of 2002, The Secret Garden Tea Room opened for business.

tea room exterior

The Secret Garden Tea Room exterior in Factorial Mall

Once again, everything ran smoothly for a couple of years.  Then the mall ownership changed and they quit renewing leases because they had plans to tear down sections of the mall to create a multi-story  mixed-use complex.  Our lease was up at the end of January 2006, so we started looking for a new location.  One of our long-time gift shop gal had a husband in real estate, so we asked him to keep us in mind for a location in Bellevue, Issaquah or Kirkland.  The next day he showed up with pictures of a Victorian mansion in Sumner.  “Whoa”, we said.  “We’ve already got a house and we’re looking for a quiet little strip mall not too far from Factoria”.  But we kept the photos and showed them to our parents.  Mark’s mom suggested that we just go take a look at the place since we love old houses.  So we loaded up the van with his parents and drove 35 minutes south.  As soon as we walked in the front door, we started placing our furniture and gift shop displays.  It was perfect!  When we brought my parents down to see it a couple of days later, they agreed and with the help of both sets of parents, we were able to make the deal, and got the keys on November 1, 2005.  Here’s what the house looked like then.

HWH Nov 2005

As we began telling customers that we’d be moving, we were surprised to learn how many were from Kent, Auburn, Federal Way and other points South of Bellevue.  The move away from our “home” base began to seem less scary.  We packed up the shop and tea room right after Christmas, and thought we’d be open by early March in our new beautiful location.  Ha!  The “cosmetic” projects became infrastructural projects that required permits and contractors and thousands of hours of labor.  Once again, thank heavens for families with not only time to help, but the skills to get things done right.  We finally got open in November of 2006, and although the house will never be “done”, it is a dream come true.  What a joy to live, work and raise a family  in this beautiful piece of history, while sharing it with the lovely friends we call customers.

Why a tea room?

Interior shot

“What made you want to open a tea room?”, is a question we get asked a lot.  I didn’t grow up drinking much tea…my parents are German and Scandinavian Lutherans from North Dakota, so coffee was the only hot beverage in my heritage.  Yah, sure you betcha they put out some tea bags at the church “coffee hour” on Sundays, but I never knew anyone who actually tried it.  Then, in the early 1990’s while on a buying trip for our gift shop, in Atlanta, in July, I discovered iced tea.  It was love at first sip!  So that’s where the “tea” part of our story began.

betty gordon cover

I must go back a lot further though, to get to the “tea room” part of the story.  As a child (and to this day still) I loved reading the old juvenile series books.  I started with Nancy Drew and The Dana Girls, and then discovered many other series, like The Campfire Girls, Betty Gordon and Ruth Fielding.  In these books, written in the early part of last century, the heroines always stopped in little tea rooms to have lunch while on their adventures.  Usually the tea rooms were quaint little cottages, run by nearly penniless young women who ended up being part of the story.  The food was always simple, but delicious and I wanted to eat in a tea room.  Department stores had restaurants they called tea rooms, but they were so NOT what I visualized.  I grew up in Issaquah, WA and as a teenager, worked in Gilman Village, a quaint shopping area that was comprised of old homes moved onto a nice property and connected by brick paths and gardens.  There was one little place (The Boarding House Restaurant) that would have been a perfect tea room, but it wasn’t called that, so it still didn’t count in my mind.

Then in the mid 1990’s, a new place opened up in downtown Bellevue.  Not on Old Main ( a shopping district with a bit of charm), but in the bottom of a highrise office building.  It was called Lisa’s Tea Treasures, and as soon as I heard about it, I made a reservation.  It was a cute little place, much like I had envisioned (at least once you were inside!) and the food was wonderful.  I experienced my first high tea, and was thrilled.  We would take our friends, families and employees there for any occasion we could dream up.  Then one day, they were gone.

About this time, I heard about another tea room somewhere around Burien.  While not as fancy as Lisa’s, it was still wonderful and I was hooked.  I started a tea journal and began seeking out tea rooms wherever I traveled.  By this time there was this great new tool called The Internet, and it made it much easier to find tea rooms.  I wrote up my first menu for a tea room in 1996, and began giving small tea parties at home.

In the meantime, back at The Secret Garden, we began to carry vintage items.  We’d go to estate sales and thrift shops every chance we could and even took a couple of extensive road trips looking for the china and glassware and other cool stuff that our customers coveted.  In 2000, a trip to Europe, with the women in my family, centered around hitting all the flea markets we could find!  We also rented a car in England so we could go to the Potteries district (Stoke-on-Trent) and tour the china factories.   I had always loved old stuff, but once I started learning about antique tabletop, it nearly became an obsession.  Of course, we took tea at every tea room we came across and added even more ideas to my tea journal.

flea market

By the time we did our Mother’s Day Tea 2002, I was quite well versed in the subject and it was such fun to go through my journal and compile the best ideas from all the places I’d visited to incorporate into The Secret Garden Tea Room.  I’m so fortunate to be able to combine so many things that I love into an occupation!