"A UNIQUE TEA EXPERIENCE OFF THE BEATEN TRACK"
( Lady Donna and Miss Spenser Hardin enjoying a hot cuppa)
Dear Tea Society Readers,
It is with great pleasure that I have had the opportunity to meet some wonderful people whilst becoming a tea director. When I first began this adventure some years ago, I did so with a national group called The Ladies’ Tea Guild. After that group dissolved and many directors started tea-related business, I continued with a guild/society and that is in essence what the Ladies Historical Tea Society has become.
One delightful director, whom I have had the wonderful good fortune of getting to know, is Mrs. Donna Hardin. Donna has continued her tea business by opening a special occasion Tea Room out of her home in Iowa called Miss Spenser’s Special- Teas. Donna has graciously agreed to answer some questions about her tea business and her fascination with all things tea related.
Rebecca: Hello Donna. Thank you for sharing your time with me for a little conversation at the Tea Society.
You and I have discussed, on a number of occasions, what a unique passion tea is for us. Would you share a little about when you first became passionate about tea?
Donna: Well, I have always admired the "pretty" things associated with tea time...however; I would have to say that my real passion for the “art” of taking tea began in 2000 when my husband moved this "cityslicker" to the country!! After being married 20 years, he came home from work one day and informed me that he wanted to move our family to a farm where we could raise a few chickens, horse and cattle! You can only imagine my surprise with those words, but...being the dutiful wife, I soon found myself living on a 140 acre farm about 30 minutes South of Des Moines, Iowa. Now...some people might be thrilled with this type of adventure, but for me, it was very isolating and lonely. However, life does have a way of surprising us, for it was during the first long winter in the country that my daughter, Spenser, then 13, and I began the art of taking afternoon tea together. I have to admit, in the beginning, we were extremely uncultured, using soggy tea bags you find from the local grocer, not to mention consuming large amounts of Little Debby Fancy Cakes. However, over time, we began to refine our tea taking skills by reading and learning all kinds of information on the subject of how to prepare a “proper” English tea; sampling and tasting the many different varieties of loose leaf teas; and collecting various tea accoutrements which added much enjoyment to our tea time gatherings. Over time our little flame became a roaring fire, one of which we have not been able to quench!
Rebecca: What inspired you to delve deeper with tea and to actually become a Tea Guild director? What did you enjoy most about that time?
Donna: Well during our tea experiences and studies concerning tea, we discovered that we both had a desire to travel to England. Now hubby thought that was a great idea, but he wondered how we would get there…and he wasn’t talking about whether or not we would take a boat or fly…he wondered how we would get there financially. So, that’s when we decided to use our passion for tea to help pave the way to England. The Tea Guild provided us an opportunity to host teas and share our passions, as well as the ability to make a little bit of income. We enjoyed hosting our guild events every month and sharing our passions for tea and history while making new tea friends along the way. I also enjoyed chatting with other tea directors via e-mail.
Rebecca: When did you first entertain the idea of opening a special occasion tea room? How has your lovely daughter Spenser, the tea room's namesake, enhanced the tea experience for your guests?
Donna: After the Ladies Tea Guild dissolved, we went on to continue hosting our tea society every month. “Miss Spenser,” which she is fondly known by in our area, would always perform a little bit of drama for the events in historical costumes which she had created. From there, libraries, churches, Old Settler Events, retirement centers, tea rooms, etc. began contacting us and hiring us to perform our historical programs. Word got around, and people began calling and asking if they could come to tea at our home so that is what prompted us to create our special event tea room.
Rebecca: Which tea rooms do you find most inspiring?
Donna: I enjoy tea rooms that offer a traditional four-course tea served on beautiful china in relaxing and pretty environments, and of course, ones that serve “real” tea made from loose leaf tea, not tea bags. I prefer this over to a restaurant-style tea room which just serves lunch foods.
Rebecca: I couldn't agree more! It's horrible to venture into a "tea room" and find that they only serve 1 blend of loose leaf tea or worse yet, all tea bags!
You also offer special tea blends for sale. Which is your most popular tea?
Donna: Our most popular tea is our “Miss Spenser’s Special-Tea.” This is a wonderful Ceylon tea. We have found this tea is perfect for those who have never tried a cup of “properly” brewed loose leaf tea before. It has a full-body smoothness with an equally pleasing taste without any astringency; it’s really delicious and can be enjoyed any time of the day.
Rebecca: Do you also have a cook book available and what types of recipes do you provide?
Donna: Our cookbook contains everything you need to prepare a simple tea, cream tea, afternoon tea, all the way to a delicious high tea, which consists of a meal. It has over 90 tried and true recipes and sells for $16. It has been extremely popular; we are on our second printing and are almost sold out again!
Rebecca: There has certainly been resurgence in the interest in afternoon tea over the past few years. There are many groups, like the ones we both directed and ones attending your Special-Teas, which congregate specifically to enjoy afternoon tea. With the Tea Society it has become a time of bonding with other women who share similar interests. I try to always keep the conversation positive and not too controversial or political as to make all feel welcome. What do you attribute to the desire for groups like ours? Do you believe there is a void of a more ʽgenteelʼ way of life in our society which the art of tea fulfills?
Donna: People today are just so busy that they don’t take time to rejuvenate their spirits…one way to do that is by creating a relaxing and soothing environment, with pretty table settings, delicious foods, fine quality tea, good music, and great fellowship. This is what we try to provide here at Miss Spenser’s; we love to pamper our guests. Interestingly enough, although most people think of tea time for women only, we have found that the men-folk enjoy it as well!!
Rebecca: Miss Spenserʼs Special Teas has been in operation now for nearly a year, correct? What has your first year been like as a tea room operator and how does your tea room differ from others in your region?
Donna: I would have to say that this first year of business has been one of the best years of my life…to be able to share my passion for tea, history, literature, foods, and to work alongside my daughter, in our home, is truly a dream come true! It’s been a very exciting year…we have the best customers, a/k/a tea friends!!
Our tea room is very unique…actually, our motto is: “A unique tea experience off the beaten path.” You have to remember…we are 30 minutes from civilization, with 2 miles of it on gravel!! At first, I didn’t think any one would come…but they do. We have had people all the way from Oregon, Colorado, Illinois, Missouri, and Nebraska…as well as all over the State of Iowa…it continues to amaze me. I guess we are like the movie Field of Dreams, “If you build it, they will come.” Ha… What makes our tea room unique is that it is just that, “a tea room” which offers the traditional four-course tea, with ‘real’ tea served, not hot water and a soggy tea bag. On top of that, our programs are very unique, they’re one-of-a-kind as they are written and researched by us and performed by the amazing Miss Spenser! People always leave here with full tummies and a little more information/education.
Rebecca: I read your reviews at Teamap and they are extraordinary. To say they are overwhelmingly positive would be an understatement. Did you imagine that you would receive reviews like this after such a short time in operation?
Donna: Thank you Rebecca for your kind words…we have been amazed at the reviews, and we give God the glory for them all…we feel so blessed to be able to share our passions with others…it has been beyond our scope of imagination for sure!
Rebecca: Donna, thank you so much for taking this time with me. I have no doubt that your guests have been spoilt beyond their wildest dreams with the availability of such a wonderfully creative destination to take tea. I wish you the best of luck with your tea room and I can't wait for the chance to get to attend one in the future.
Donna: Rebecca, It was my privilege to talk with you today…I always enjoy our chats. Thank you again for all your kind words…I do hope that we can take tea together sometime in the very near future!! And, congratulations to you on your beautiful blog site and your future AnTEAquity endeavors! I am looking forward to seeing your “wares” for sale!
I hope you enjoyed this interview with Donna and please do visit Miss Spenser's Special-Teas if you're interested in the cookbook, tea, or an incredible Tea experience if you happen to find yourself in her neighborhood.