Tea time

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Local café offers centuries old tradition

Augie Salzer


Riverland News

Walking through the door of Sweeties Cafe and Bakery in Dunnellon is like traveling back in time to England during the 1800s to dress in Victorian era clothes and enjoy a delicious High Tea.

Having a gathering of ladies for an afternoon of snacks and tea was reportedly started in the 1800s by the Duchess of Bedford. Since only two meals were served back then, the story states she became hungry in the afternoon and “had a sinking feeling,” probably from lack of food. She then decided to invite ladies over in the afternoon for snacks and tea. It was called the “Afternoon Tea” or “Low Tea,” because the meal was served on low lounge-type tables in mid-day and become a favored pastime and social event of the higher class.

In wealthier homes, eating the last meal of the day around 9 p.m. became possible only after the kerosene lamps were brought in and eating a late dinner became more fashionable.

Traditionally, the working-class in England ate at sunset because they did not have the luxury of the kerosene lamps. This meal was called the “High Tea,” because it was served on the main table, which is quite high in England, and included hot cooked foods and meat pies.

Outside of the United Kingdom, people refer to Afternoon Tea as High Tea, which is not actually traditional or historical.

The American people now generally associate a High Tea with dressing up in fancy clothes complete with silk gloves, using elegant table manners, eating dainty finger foods off of lace doilies and drinking tea from China cups with saucers. Today, this is primarily enjoyed by ladies gathering together for food, tea and social interaction.

Having the only place in the area serving the traditional and fashionable meal was not a life-long plan of owner Gena Riley: it all just fell into place for her.

She did not have any kind of experience in the restaurant field, but she did enjoy having a cup of tea in small specialty shops. Riley also enjoyed shopping for pretty tea cups, tea pots, doilies and other girly things and over time had accumulated an extensive collection.

“My friend and I would go on our days off to various coffee shops, tea houses and cafes for something to do,” Riley said. “Like everyone would always say, ‘I’d love to have a little place like that’ after visiting a little shop. And I always liked the girly girl things like tea pots and cups and I started collecting things like that in the hope that one day I’d use them and not just keep them in a box.”

One day, she decided to take action and attended one of the Dunnellon Chamber & Business Association meetings and was introduced to the members as a guest.

“I was asked if I wanted to say a few words and I didn’t have a speech prepared so I just winged it,” she said. “I told them I wanted to open something here in the Historic District and I was looking for guidance and ideas.”

Dane and Nancy Myers, owners of the Grumbles House and members of the DCBA, talked to her after the meeting.

“Dane said they had a little kitchen available over in the barracks and would I be interested in talking to them,” she said. “The end. I talked to them.”

Riley started by renting half of the structure and then took on the rest of the place Feb. 1, as the business grew.

“When you are starting out in a new business you don’t know how well it is going to go,” she explained why she decided to lease instead of buying. “I looked into purchasing a place and I wanted to be in the historic district, but I didn’t want to bite off more than I could chew. I checked out the strip centers and it wasn’t the look I wanted to go for, so luckily Dane and Nancy (Myers) talked to me.”

It took a lot of time and expense to get all the licensing, permits, food handlers and work with the Greater Dunnellon Historical Society to get everything ready for the opening of the little restaurant. Everything was completed toward the end of March, but Riley waited until April 1, 2016, for the opening.

“I wanted to have an easy date to remember for the first day,” she laughed. “What better day than April Fool’s Day?”

Coming up with the name for the cafe was a bit of a challenge. When she married John Riley 15 years ago, he always called her Sweetie and his three boys naturally picked up on the name. One of her step-children suggested the name for the cafe.

“The boys didn’t know what to call me, but they heard their dad call me Sweetie and that is what they have always called me,” Riley said. “Even when they became teenagers, their friends called me that, too.”

Riley opened the restaurant with the help of her step-sister, Cindi Gamboa, who has some restaurant experience.

“She is my right-hand girl and we do everything together,” Riley said. “Cindi is someone I can trust.”

On Feb. 1, Carey Perez of the online store Sweet Creations bakery wanted a store front and became the baker for Sweeties.

Although flavored tea was served in the café, they didn’t actually have the High Tea. One day a lady came in and asked if Riley wanted to buy her Victorian costumes and hats, because she was getting out of the business.

“I went right over and got all the costumes, dresses, skirts and hats,” Riley explained how she began serving the High Tea. “I ended up with her whole stock of over 100 dresses in every size.”

The special tea is becoming popular and it is served after the cafe is closed for those with reservations. Between eight and 20 ladies arrive at approximately 3:30 p.m. to pick out their costumes before the official start of High Tea at 4 o’clock.

The tables are covered with white table cloths, tea pots hold the hot tea, traditional finger sandwiches, scones, fruit, cheese and pastries are served elegantly to the costumed guests.

“I treat everyone the way I would want to be treated,” Riley explained her philosophy of running the restaurant. “This is something I would like to eat, something I would like to see and be treated.”

Sweeties Cafe and Bakery is located on Walnut Street, next to Grumbles House. For information or to RSVP for High Tea, call 216-2510.

Augie Salzer is a correspondent with the Riverland News. Emial her at Augie@thingsintown.com.