Beloved Watts Tea Shop bids a genteel farewell

When Susie Aveni was growing up in the late 1940s and early '50s, coming to shop on Wisconsin Ave. required donning white gloves and a nice dress. After visiting her grandfather, a barber at the Pfister Hotel, Aveni would cross the street to George Watts & Son and head upstairs to the tea room.

Aveni, now 73, was back at the Watts Tea Shop for the last time earlier this month to relive memories — along with her three grown children — before the famous lunch spot serves a final round of English muffins and sunshine cake on Saturday.

"It was like a museum to come and look at the china displays, and we'd always come to the tea shop for birthdays," Aveni reminisced.

She was one of hundreds of nostalgic customers to cycle through the Watts storefront at 761 N. Jefferson St. since CEO Sam Watts announced in November that the tea shop would close and that the 147-year-old china, flatware and crystal retailer would move fully online. Forget about a reservation for lunch or high tea. Those have been fully booked through the end of the year since early December.

Women — usually older, often arriving in multi-generational family groups — have long been the tea shop's most loyal clients. Perched atop the famous luxury table-top retailer and accessible by a quaint elevator, the Watts Tea Shop has a colorful history. It's been everything from a private club during the second World War to a cozy corner for political bigwigs to a charming breakfast locale for many a visiting celebrity (often after staying across the street at the Pfister). Customers included everyone from Whoopi Goldberg and Robert Duvall to "Weird Al" Yankovic.

It's the end of an era, countless customers chirped on a recent afternoon as they bustled into and out of Watts.

Sam Watts, 37, never looked perturbed about endlessly answering the inevitable follow-up: What's next? Here's the official version: The Watts family owns the building and Sam Watts owns the retail store and the tea shop. The business will move totally online and use the basement for shipping and receiving. The tea shop will close and Sam will rent out the space. Might a tenant want to open a restaurant there? Perhaps. Sam will continue to manage the building.

The other three tenants — Kesslers Diamonds and Zita Bridal Salon on the first floor and Walny Legal Group on the second floor — have no intention of moving right now.

Sam Watts' decision to close the tea shop and eliminate the physical footprint of George Watts & Son was based on several factors. He's interested in being a landlord and expanding his real-estate business, and in completing the hours necessary to obtain his CPA. He'll be the head of, but another person will handle day-to-day management.

That doesn't mean it's been an easy decision.

"I feared that a lot of people would be really mad at me," Sam Watts said recently, in between ringing up a stream of customers in the tiny Watts' storefront space. "But everyone has been really encouraging."

Eleven days before the closure, everything from ornaments to glassware to mismatched saucers was being plucked from the shelves at a near-frenetic pace.

A luxury location

Sam is a fifth-generation Watts, a descendent of founder George Watts, son Howard, grandson George and great-grandson J.D. He's the great-great grandson. The eldest George Watts emigrated to Chicago from Bristol, England, in 1868 and at some point took a boat trip to Milwaukee. He wandered into a china and glass dealer downtown with a help wanted ad in the window and was hired immediately, according to stories in the Journal Sentinel clips.

Watts became a partner in that store, Massey & Co., and eventually started running his own luxury store on N. Milwaukee St. in 1879. Around 1925, he pulled together enough resources to construct a grand terra cotta building in an Italian architectural style on N. Jefferson St.

The building continued to be a luxury shopping location for Milwaukee's elite families and was the favored place for bridal and wedding registries. Watts' iconic gold boxes were synonymous with good taste. For commoners, even just coming to look was a special treat; the store featured specific rooms for lines like Steuben crystal and Baccarat crystal and employed artists to create and manage all the displays.

The Watts Tea Shop is a direct descendent of a downtown tea shop established in 1901. In 1911, a pair of sisters took over the restaurant and then moved into the Watts building in 1929. The Watts family took over the management in 1951.

The tea shop's signature chicken-salad sandwiches, muffins and citrus-touched sunshine cake are served on white tablecloths, with flowers on the tables.

Over the years, both institutions have had to adapt. George Watts & Son learned to compete with mail-order catalogs and local discount stores and then the internet. Sam Watts invited the jewelry and bridal stores in as tenants.

'A time warp'

Fine table-top settings and old-school tea shops have lost some of their appeal with a younger generation. But many others still appreciate the tradition.

"We use good china every day," said Carol Christensen, a 62-year-old freelance violinist who has been coming to Watts regularly for decades. She received her first set of Minton china 40 years ago and owns at least half a dozen other sets.

When she heard Watts was closing, Christensen quickly nabbed three reservations before the end of the year. On a recent afternoon, she and her husband, David Piggins, a 77-year-old retired chemical engineer from S.C. Johnson & Son Inc., enjoyed sandwiches, quiche and a round of sweet treats.

"It's a time warp," said Christensen, looking like a throwback herself with a vintage 1920s hat and an elegantly cut blue dress that matched her eyes.

She was smart to pre-order a bag of English muffins to go. Others who asked their servers were told the kitchen had run out.

Sam Watts appreciates that so many people feel connected to the shop and the restaurant. The son of Milwaukee County Circuit Judge J.D. Watts, he spent most of his childhood in Philadelphia. That's where J.D. headed in 1989 when his father, George Watts, decided to run the family business again after an unsuccessful Republican campaign for the governor's seat.

Coincidentally, a point of disagreement between Sam's father and grandfather was the tea room. George believed it was an integral part of the business. J.D. did not.

Sam Watts worked in the restaurant industry and the lumber industry out east before he agreed, at his grandmother's urging, to take over the tea shop about seven years ago. Then he took over the store.

He has two daughters, ages 2 and 3 months, and is looking forward to shifting his career to other business endeavors while still keeping an eye on the family business.

Sam Watts said he greatly values the trust and support of people who helped Watts become what it is today.

"We look forward to continuing to be the civic contributors we've aspired to become," he said.

This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Watts Tea Shop bids genteel farewell in Milwaukee