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
Q. What inspired you to open one of
America’s first and most successful tearooms, and what led your decision to
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.
How has your business changed, and where is it headed?
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?
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
Q. Bruce, what is Shelley’s
greatest strength, and what does she bring to the tea table?
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.
What have been the most notable of your collective tea experiences around the
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.
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.
Bruce, what are the essentials for a truly artful afternoon tea?
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
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?
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
Editor’s Note: For more information
about Shelley and Bruce Richardson, go to elmwoodinn.com.