For the past 13 years, Sue Rye has celebrated her mother’s birthday at Tea By Two in Bel Air. That includes this past February, when her mom, Carey, turned 103 at a party with her granddaughters and sister.
The staff at the tearoom “make her feel as if she is the best thing since sliced bread,” said Rye. “It’s the most friendly atmosphere.”
In its nearly 21 years in operation, Main Street’s Tea By Two has become the go-to spot for generations of Harford County women, and a few men, to celebrate milestones and the joy of being together, particularly as the pandemic eases.
“I think we’re even busier than we were before the pandemic,” said co-owner Janet Meyers.
The business’ endurance and its devoted following is beyond what Meyers and her business partner, Erin Bradley, had in mind when they founded the tea house in a former private home on Bel Air’s Main Street.
Both women have always preferred tea over its more highly caffeinated counterpart. “There’s just something about tea that’s very soothing and calm.” But they felt that tea can get shortchanged in the U.S., where coffee is more widely consumed.
After years of friendship, the duo, who met while working for a Hunt Valley insurance company, decided to turn their passion for teatime into a full-time job. Never mind that they had little experience in the hospitality industry. “From the beginning, neither one of us knew what we were doing,” said Meyers.
They sought guidance through a small business program at the Harford Community College designed to help entrepreneurs. They decided to include a retail shop at the front of the tearoom to supplement sales, and checked out tearooms in nearby Pennsylvania to gather inspiration.
Inside the cozy tearoom, Tea By Two strikes an inviting balance between classy and comfortable, with tables draped in floral cloths and mismatched fine china.
“Sometimes people think about tea and they get very uptight about it,” said Meyers. They wonder: “Do I have to put my pinkie in the air?” Two By Tea, she says, is more about relaxation. “Our take on tea has been more of a ‘come and escape from the world for an hour and a half.’”
The menu of teas features around 100 different varieties as well as a dozen or so rotating flavors. The majority of brews come from the East Indies Coffee & Tea company, a wholesaler based in Lebanon, Pennsylvania. There are pu-erh teas, fermented black teas that Meyers said only recently became available for import from China. “My coffee drinkers love that,” she said, due to the rich, robust flavor pu-erh makes when brewed. Other varieties include green teas, steamed or cooked to retain their color.
Staff encourage guests to try new flavors, and offer refills on pots and new flavors at no extra charge. If a flavor isn’t to someone’s liking, they can switch it out for an alternate for free. “We don’t want you to sit there … and be like, ‘Oh my gosh, I hate this,’” said Meyers. She also encourages people to buy small samples of teas to try at home in the retail shop.
Customers like Rye also love the food. Afternoon tea comes on a three-tiered plate with traditional snacks like cucumber sandwiches as well as homemade sweets like brownies and cookies. A special scone comes with a helping of airy clotted cream and lemon curd.
As Tea By Two moves into the future, Meyers said she’s noticed a recent uptick in tea consumption and interest among people from college age into their early 30s. “That’s been kind of fun,” she said, to see how younger generations have adapted teatime for their own personalities.
Since it opened in 2001, longtime employee Shen Wood has witnessed birthday parties for people from ages 5 to 100 and older. “Taking tea is a tradition that is very inclusive of all those ages,” said Wood. Women who came as girls with their moms now take their own daughters to tea.
The business has confronted various challenges, from 9/11, which occurred just months after it opened, to the recession of 2008. But no crisis has been quite like the coronavirus pandemic, which forced eateries like theirs to shut down overnight.
Like so many restaurateurs, Meyers and Bradley pivoted to curbside carryout, brainstorming ways to make tea time cheerful even when eaten in takeout containers. They benefited from a loyal customer base: Regulars who might have visited with out-of-town guests suddenly came by once a week to pick up orders, saying, “We don’t want you to go away,” Meyers said.
Grants from Harford County helped compensate for reduced revenues and to cover rent and electric bills. “It was scary in the beginning … yet we just kept going.”
As pandemic restrictions eased, Meyers frequently spoke with guests who were reuniting with friends they hadn’t seen since the coronavirus crisis began. “You could really tell that people missed each other,” Meyers said. “It was neat that they came to our place.”