Hoffman Media


Tea Trailblazers: Shelley & Bruce Richardson


Shelley and Bruce Richardson were among the first Americans to elevate the art of tea in this country. Through the couple’s combined talent, they continue to explore, from a spiritual perspective, the “universal language” of tea through a host of artistic pursuits.


Q. What inspired you to open one of America’s first and most successful tearooms, and what led your decision to close it?


A. Elmwood Inn had been a well-known regional restaurant until it closed in 1989. We restored Elmwood in 1990 as a bed-and-breakfast and our home. We enjoyed the ritual of tea during our travels to Europe, so we decided to include a small tearoom where local guests could continue to enjoy the historic mansion. The custom of afternoon tea became our way of honoring the house’s great history. The tearoom quickly became popular as America’s tea renaissance began. Five years later, we closed the B&B and moved our family next door to make room for more dining rooms, an art gallery, and gift shops. We began writing tea books, hosting tea seminars, and developing our tea-importing business in the early ’90s.  America’s growing thirst for tea caused those ventures to grow quickly.  


The decision to close the tearoom after 14 years also came naturally. We needed to spend more time developing our book-publishing and tea-blending operations. When you listen closely to your calling, you will always know the right time to close a door and move through another.


Q. How has your business changed, and where is it headed?


A. It’s interesting that most people in the tea profession have been in business less than 15 years. America is leading the world in this latest tea renaissance. We were fortunate because tea became our livelihood just before the tearoom boom began. Our experience has allowed us to teach new students of tea through our books and seminars. Our goal is to publish three new tea books each year and to become the tea supplier to a growing number of restaurants, tearooms, and retail shops. New tearooms love to deal with us because we are a small company that can give them the personal attention they need.


Q. What are some of the more striking insights you have discovered about people and how they respond to the rituals surrounding tea—culturally, spiritually, and even physically?


A. We have had the rare opportunity to share tea with thousands of people from all over the world. There is a common thread that runs through all those encounters. No matter the language or nationality, tea drinkers share a like-mindedness, similar to a religious brotherhood. The teacup is a universal communion cup that welcomes and consoles people from all social and political realms.


Q. Bruce, what is Shelley’s greatest strength, and what does she bring to the tea table?


A. Shelley has an unequaled eye for beauty and detail. Her touch can be seen in every aspect of our business. What you see in our business is nothing more than an extension of her deeply spiritual nature. Our customers are instantly drawn to her welcoming personality. Our recipe books chronicle her creative talents, and tearooms across America turn to her menus and recipes for inspiration.


Q. Shelley, what makes Bruce a great partner, both in life and in business?


A. Bruce and I have always worked together throughout our marriage. We are both musicians and find a lot of common interests in our love for the arts, travel, cooking, and entertaining. I honor Bruce’s adventurous spirit when it comes to exploring new paths in life, business, and community service. Without a doubt, he has always encouraged me to live out my highest dreams and goals. I believe he is not afraid to explore the difficult paths that life often offers. That courage is very important in life as well as business.


Q. What have been the most notable of your collective tea experiences around the world?


A. Our most affirming encounter came right after the publication of our first tea book in 1994. We were visiting Callaway Gardens in Georgia when we came upon a small group of Japanese ladies seated beside a tranquil lake. We observed them from a distance while they drank tea from handleless cups. Soon, they invited us to join them for an impromptu tea ceremony in the warm spring sunshine. Our young son Ben thought the freshly whisked Matcha smelled like alfalfa. It was one of our first experiences with green tea and probably our most memorable. We gave the tea master a copy of our book, and she was suddenly aware that her American guests were also students of tea. Her eyes lit with excitement with the realization that although our cultures were quite different, we shared a common bond. We couldn’t communicate verbally, but we were instantly united in spirit by the universal cup of tea.


Q. Shelley, what is the teapot you most prize, and why?


A. I have a large collection of teapots that have come from many places around the world. Our guests at Elmwood Inn always enjoyed looking at the teapots and cups and hearing stories about them. I have a small yellow and white French teapot that I purchased at a tiny teashop across from the great Gothic Cathedral of Chartres. I have visited Chartres many times and consider it my spiritual home. One lovely afternoon as I sat in that tearoom gazing out the front window contemplating the awe-inspiring history of that ancient cathedral, I felt that I was transported back to the 12th century. I am reminded of that time and my visits there when I see the little teapot sitting on a shelf in my office.


Q. Bruce, what are the essentials for a truly artful afternoon tea?


A. I turn to the classic Book of Tea for my guidance in creating an exceptional afternoon tea. Author Okakura Kakuzo says that beauty and art matter in the tea ceremony. He writes that all the elements must be in harmony so the soul is refreshed. People often ask me how I choose the locations that go into my Great Tea Rooms of America and Great Tea Rooms of Britain books. I look for venues that leave a lasting memory with the guest. Often, these are tearooms that radiate the gentle hospitality of the owner. The room, the food, the music, and the service must combine to make you feel refreshed. Most importantly, the tea must be well made. No tearoom will be successful that does not respect the tradition of the leaf.


Q. You two have said to be a “student of tea, you must always be learning.” What are some things you have

learned about tea recently?


A. We are often introduced as tea experts. None of us are experts. We are in trouble when we no longer view ourselves as students of tea. We are always learning new things about tea. Both of us have a master’s degree in education, so study and a hearty appetite for learning come naturally to us.

One of our passions is the desire to put a “personal” face on tea. We published a book called Looking Deeply into Tea in 2005. That book was an effort to make the American public aware of the workers in India and Sri Lanka who rise early every morning to pick and process our daily cup of tea. The photographs of tea workers and the accompanying meditations we placed in that book are our tribute to their lives and labors. Their struggles earn our respect, and their eyes capture our hearts. They have become our teachers, and we are their students. Their simple lives have encouraged us to become more aware of the needs of our fellow human beings living on the far side of the globe. For that we are thankful.



Editor’s Note: For more information about Shelley and Bruce Richardson, go to elmwoodinn.com. 

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