Tea room pours good cheer - East Valley Tribune: Get Out

Tea room pours good cheer

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Posted: Friday, November 21, 2008 3:09 pm | Updated: 9:42 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

Once upon a time, two women at a Chandler church stood inside a cluttered storage room just off the left side of the sanctuary and had a great vision.

Slideshow: The Tea Garden at Hope Covenant Church

Once upon a time, two women at a Chandler church stood inside a cluttered storage room just off the left side of the sanctuary and had a great vision.

Slideshow: The Tea Garden at Hope Covenant Church

That place, packed to the ceiling with the stuff churches so effortlessly accumulate, could be transformed into a tea room where women and girls could gather for sandwiches, scones and tea and fill the room with laughter, they imagined.

And so it was.

Four years later, The Tea Garden is no longer a secret place down a hallway at Hope Covenant Church. Women of the Red Hat Society commonly hold tea parties in the cozy room that comfortably seats just 12 but can accommodate 15 when folding tables are fully opened.

"We have had sweet-16 birthday parties, and we did a birthday party for a lady who turned 85," said Sheri Cross, who leads the team of volunteers that operates the tea room by reservation. "We have done bridal showers and baby showers. We have etiquette teas" where good manners are taught to youth.

And the "most precious ones" are the father-and-daughter teas, she said. Coming up is a "grandma shower."

For a $10 donation, for example, they give the Red Hat Society a three-course tea "that is the same quality as one at The Phoenician or the Ritz-Carlton," Cross said. "It's a smokin' deal." Those women are generous with leaving tips, she said, then added, "The Red Hat ladies use some of the most colorful language at church. That always cracks me up."

Through the first half of the 20th century, tea rooms were popular gathering places in American cities, often in hotels, where they featured a light menu and a sedate atmosphere. They often had bird cages, and the setting was more relaxed than bars or cafes.

"When I was in high school, I worked at the tea room at the top of Dayton's (department store) in Minneapolis," said Marge Boydston, who helps serve at The Tea Garden. There was also a room where just men could go separately, she recalls.

Cross said the men at Hope Covenant joke with the women. "They say you have a tea room, now how about a cigar and brandy room for us?" Or they say "there is too much estrogen in this room," she said. "My mother worked in the tea room in Palo Alto (Calif.), and that is where I learned a lot and where I got a lot of her recipes," she said.

"We go often to other tea rooms to get ideas," Cross said. "I can say we never come away from them going, 'Oh, gosh, we really need to do this better.' I have real confidence with the women on the team." The hostesses wear black and white outfits to serve their guests and take full advantage of the quaint tea sets that have been donated to the room. Some are on display around the room or kept in a row of cupboards.

Walls of the 12-by-18-foot room feature murals of vinery and a patio scene with a wicker chair and a ledge that looks three-dimensional, especially when viewed through a camera lens. The murals painted by Lisa Cummings conveya Tuscan ambience. She got her inspiration from "Victoria" magazine art, Cross said. There is even a slice of an ocean scene, done for Cross to remind her of her days living in San Diego. A small sign says "Tea with Friends," and framed cross-stitch art adds another touch to the scene.

She pointed out the window to a desert-landscaped area that could one day feature an outdoor patio for the tea room.

"We serve a full three-course tea that includes three kinds of sandwiches, homemade scones, with lemon curd and Devonshire cream, and all of it is done in love," Cross said. Desserts range from English truffles to a "chocoholic buffet."

"It is just a well-kept secret," she said, noting that proceeds after expenses go to programs to help women with needs, both in the church and throughout the world. "We have sent women to retreats, and we have sent women onto the Navajo Nation, and we have purchased property in Myanmar (formerly Burma) to help build a church." she said.

Back in 1984, Cross, whose husband, the Rev. Duane Cross, is pastor of Hope Covenant, went into the store room to see how much was piled into it.

"This church has absolutely no storage, so this room was filled to the ceiling - props for Christmas plays, angel costumes, chairs, our barbecue ... It was just full of junk," she said. "My friend and I were considering starting a catering business."

But together, she and Angie Emery came up with the idea for a tea room and a new way to serve women.

"It's just fun to see the ladies enjoying this," Boydston said.

Food is prepared elsewhere and brought in. Cross notes the church's kitchen is "the farthest room away," and The Tea Garden itself has only one electrical outlet and no sink.

"But we pull this off beautifully," she said. "We've gotten a lot of miles of walking between here and the kitchen."

"It is totally to bless women in our church and our community," Cross said. The church, founded in 1980, opened its campus in 1982. It has more than 500 members and fostered the start-up of a sister church in Gilbert last year. Its sign along Dobson Road declares "No Perfect People Allowed."

The Tea Garden

Located in Hope Covenant Church, 1770 S. Dobson Road, Chandler. Small groups interested in booking The Tea Garden may contact the church at (480) 899-7255.

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