By Angie Brown • Photography by Zachary Hardin
Owning a tearoom is a dream come true for Iowa mother and daughter.
In 2005, Donna Hardin and her then 15-year-old daughter, Spenser, aspired to visit England but weren’t sure how they would achieve their goal. “Our little dream—it all started from a dream of going to England. . . . We thought we’d take Spenser’s talents and my talents and put them together and do little tea parties—just enough to get to England. What we found is we really liked what we did,” explains Donna. Six years later, their “little tea parties” are still going strong and have turned into much more than this mother-daughter duo ever dreamed.
Miss Spenser’s Special-Teas is housed in the Hardin family home in the pastoral surroundings of New Virginia, Iowa, a short drive from Des Moines and approximately 2½ hours from Kansas City. Combining their love of tea, food, and socializing, they began hosting teas that people loved attending. To accommodate the crowds, they decided to turn their three-car garage into an actual tearoom, complete with English décor and warm, inviting colors. They also put in a commercial kitchen.
Donna says the menu changes every month, according to the season or the theme they have chosen. “We always offer a croissant sandwich with a hearty filling. We say we’re very English, but we borrow from the French when it comes to sandwiches because in the Midwest, people have an appetite,” laughs Donna. In addition to the croissant sandwiches, they serve their ever-popular cucumber sandwich and two other finger sandwiches or savories; a choice of salad or soup; a scone with curd, cream, and jam; and three different types of desserts.
And, says Donna, “Of course, there’s always a bottomless pot of gourmet tea.” The tearoom serves only loose-leaf tea—no coffee, no soda.
“I have guests who say, ‘I only drink coffee. I don’t drink tea.’ So I just say, ‘Why don’t you try it? You haven’t had tea until you’ve had our tea.’ And a lot of times, they end up liking it,” says Spenser.
Donna agrees. “We just did a tea tasting this past weekend. It was so much fun because we had some people who thought they didn’t like tea, and they left with a teapot, loose-leaf tea, tea filters, and teaspoon.”
Donna bakes and cooks everything except the scones. Spenser is the scone maker, dramatic actress in their special events, and food stylist. “There’s geometry involved when you’re trying to get all those sandwiches on those tiered trays!” explains Spenser.
Their special Saturday events sometimes include a dramatic piece that Donna writes and Spenser acts, so customers are entertained while they eat. Often, the themes center on literary characters or holidays. The two also hold children’s teas, bridesmaids’ teas, and bridal showers. New this year were summer musicals on the lawn by Donna’s three oldest children, Spenser, Chase, and Zachary. Lawn chairs, blankets, and listening ears were encouraged, and Donna provided a buffet with iced teas and tempting desserts.
Miss Spenser’s Special-Teas enjoys a loyal following. People come from all parts of the country and even from England, bringing them full circle. The tearoom typically is open by reservation every Thursday from 11:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. and on select Saturdays. Special events are held one weekend of the month.
“We have some people who are regulars who drive an hour and half to get here monthly,” says Spenser. Because they are no longer just customers, Donna now dubs these regulars their “tea friends.” Donna says she feels honored to be able to do what she enjoys, and is especially grateful for the friendships she has made while sharing her passion for teatime.
Spenser agrees. “I would second that, and also it’s really great to be able to express your creativity . . . and have that as your job. And to be able to work with Mom is really special, too.”
While Donna and Spenser have yet to plan that long-awaited trip overseas, Spenser says that for her and their guests, their tearoom “is like going to England without a passport.”
From TeaTime September/October 2011