Embracing a dream in Sumner, Washington
By Kellie Grammer • Photography by John O’Hagan
Nancy Drew’s adventures in the Nancy Drew Mystery Stories inspired many young readers to daydream of lives as detectives, but the beloved heroine led Elizabeth Kleingartner, owner of The Secret Garden in Sumner, Washington, down a path to a different occupation.
Hours spent immersed in the pages of Nancy Drew mysteries as a child sparked Elizabeth’s interest in tea. In the novels, Nancy and her friends routinely stopped at tearooms they passed on the way to their next adventure. When the mystery was solved and the last page turned, Elizabeth was left wondering, what exactly is a tearoom? And her love affair with the ritual of tea began. As a young adult, Elizabeth made a habit of cataloging her tea experiences. In the worn pages of a small notebook, she built a menu and a plan for the tearoom she’d imagined since childhood.
Elizabeth opened The Secret Garden Gift Shop in 1989, shortly after she graduated from college. Over the next 13 years, the business steadily grew and built a strong customer base. Then in 2002, when the space next door to their Factoria Mall location in Bellevue, Washington, became vacant, Elizabeth and her staff decided to use it to host a one-time Mother’s Day tea for their customers. Response to the event was so enthusiastic, Elizabeth took a leap and embraced the endeavor she had long dreamed of. The Secret Garden Tea Room opened for business in November of that same year.
After several successful years in the Factoria Mall, the search for a new venue for The Secret Garden began. Elizabeth and her husband, Mark, who serves as the tearoom’s head chef, were looking for a space in a nearby shopping center. But a photo a real estate agent showed them of a Victorian mansion in the picturesque town of Sumner just 35 minutes south piqued their interest.
“We thought we’d come down and just take a look at a neat old house,” Mark says. “We instantly fell in love with it and just decided to find a way to make it work.” With an opportunity to both live and work in a historic treasure teeming with charm, it seemed meant to be.
The romantic ideal of the perfect place to take tea is fully realized in the historic Herbert Williams home, as the Victorian is known. The mansion welcomes patrons from first glance with its charming gingerbread trim and enchanting gardens. Inside, the rich hardwood floors and sweeping staircase transport you back in time. Large windows dressed in lace provide an airy feel and set the tone for a relaxing dining experience.
Elizabeth and her staff create a comfortable atmosphere where visitors are more like friends than guests. “It’s always fun to look ahead at the reservation page and see who’s coming in that day,” Elizabeth says. Whether chatting about the weather or simply catching up, the highlight of any day, she says, is connecting with her customers.
In addition to the friendly service, the quality of the food at The Secret Garden is what keeps guests coming back. Mark prepares everything fresh daily, from quiches and soups to scones and desserts, and his dishes often feature homegrown herbs and local produce.
With 74 teas and tea blends to choose from and additional teas available seasonally, tea drinkers in the Pacific Northwest will find a tea haven at The Secret Garden. White Ambrosia, a white tea flavored with tropical fruit and vanilla, is the most popular and is enjoyed by tea and coffee lovers alike.
The Secret Garden offers much more than good food and tea. One side of the home hosts the gift shop, where treasures from tea wares to jewelry can be found. And to expand customers’ tea experiences, Elizabeth recently introduced cooking classes and vintage china rental.
The 12 years since that first Mother’s Day tea have been eventful, and Elizabeth says she is most proud of the tearoom’s lasting impact. “We get to be a part of people’s special times—weddings, anniversary parties, milestone birthdays, and baby showers,” Elizabeth says. “It’s so fun to know that even though they don’t know who we are, they have a special memory of something that we built.”
The Secret Garden continues to evolve, but one thing is certain. If Nancy Drew and her friends were to visit Sumner, they would surely stop by this local treasure for a delightful afternoon tea, and Elizabeth would be the first at the door to welcome them.
Reservations are recommended for having tea at The Secret Garden (1711 Elm Street E., Sumner, Washington) and can be obtained by calling 253-826-4479. The tearoom is open Wednesday through Sunday, 10:00 a.m. until 4:00 p.m., while the gift shop stays open an hour later.
From TeaTime September/October 2014
Wish I lived in the area so I could come for a visit but too far from New York!