Hospitality, one cup at a time

Photographs by Bob Rozycki

 

When Anupa Mueller welcomes you to Silver Tips Tea Room, it’s no surprise she offers you a cup of the signature beverage.

What is a surprise, though, is how she helps you make a selection.

She’ll ask what you like, the flavors you favor and how you take your tea, with milk or not.

A few pointed questions lead to a recommendation that is, as they say, spot on.

And that is a skill Mueller has perfected not only through her longtime ownership of the Tarrytown destination.

Tea, you see, has been a part of Mueller’s life since her earliest days growing up in India.

“I never lost the craving for a great cup,” she says with a warm smile.

Mueller, who went to English schools in Darjeeling, says tea and tea culture were part of everyday life.

“Just as schoolchildren here go to museums for their field trips, we were taken to tea plantations,” she says. “I knew tea long before my sister married (into the Makaibari Tea Estate family).”

It’s fitting, then, that Mueller would eventually end up in the tea business. Her route, though, was not direct. She would go on to spend time in the United Kingdom before coming to New York in the late 1970s. She would eventually work at both the United Nations and in corporate America, earning an MBA along the way.

“At one point I said, ‘No, I want to follow my own vision,’” she says, and turned to her love of tea.

The Business Of Tea

In the mid-1990s, Mueller launched what would become a successful, home-based wholesale tea business, Eco-Prima Tea, which she ran for some four years before realizing there was something missing.

“I still don’t see a customer,” she says. She wanted that interaction – and realized, too, “you could not get a good cup of tea anywhere,” back then.

Within five years of starting the wholesale business – today it’s based out of an Elmsford warehouse where she can most often be found – Mueller would launch Silver Tips Tea Room, which marked its 15th anniversary in November.

And that family connection to the Makaibari Tea Estate, established in 1859 and the oldest garden in Darjeeling, would prove more than just a happy coincidence.

Makaibari, now farmed by the fourth generation of its original family, was an early proponent of 100 percent organic and Fair Trade products, which Mueller strongly supports.

And the tearoom’s name is a nod to one of the highest grades of tea. When Mueller opened her establishment, Makaibari Silver Tips was a limited edition, reserve tea manufactured by the Makaibari Estate.

Today, the tearoom continues the tradition, Mueller shares, by carrying the record-breaking Makaibari Silver Tips Imperial, a limited reserve white tea.

From the start, Mueller’s vision for her tearoom was very clear.

She didn’t want to be serving the clichéd cucumber sandwiches in what she calls a “frou-frou” setting but rather one that would appeal, from décor to menu, to women and men alike.

The tearoom is indeed quietly welcoming with a simple, elegant décor. Rotating exhibitions of work by local artists serve as the main decorative element gracing the yellow walls.

“That’s also by design,” Mueller says. “That’s what I wanted. I think it keeps it fresh and gives (the artists) an outlet.”

She searched Westchester towns before finding what would become a 19-seat space on Broadway, an easy commute from her Ossining home. An expansion in 2009 virtually doubled the space, which today welcomes shoppers, tourists and often, business people on midday break.

“Look where we are, right on the main drag,” Mueller says, motioning out the window to the downtown business district.

Something for everyone

At Silver Tips, Mueller notes, everyone is welcome.

“Everybody’s point of view on tea is valid. Just because I don’t serve it Chinese style doesn’t mean it’s not valid, because it is.”

And customers can relax, have their tea however they want it – extra milk or no milk, lots of sugar or none.

“It’s to your taste,” she says. “There are no rules.”

Mueller, who herself likes different teas at different times of the day, says tea has many purposes.

“It’s one of those crazy beverages. At the same time it energizes you and it relaxes you.”

And it also captures the imagination.

“We definitely see trends,” Mueller says, with increased requests for green or white teas based on published studies or mentions by personalities such as Dr. Mehmet Oz.

Mueller says she promotes the “general” health benefits of tea, but isn’t about to go suggesting particular blends to cure ailments and such.

There are plenty more places to get tea today than when Silver Tips opened, and Mueller says she welcomes all competition – from sleek Asian salons to full-on Victorian escapes where chintz reigns.

“We’re happy for all kinds of tea experiences everywhere because it broadens the market.”

When Mueller launched Silver Tips, the idea of dedicated places for tea was novel.

“Fifteen years ago you still had to teach people what to drink,” she says. “For me, the first couple of years it was all about education. … ‘No, it’s not when you’re sick. No, it’s not (just) chamomile.’”

But that was a part of Mueller’s mission, which includes a dedication to serving the perfect cup of tea and educating customers about all aspects of tea.

Today, Silver Tips has a loyal clientele, but it took time to build.

“The first couple of years we did anything,” she says, from hosting gardening clubs to book groups. “We taught a lot of people through our tea tastings.”

Mueller continues to do presentations on tea, from a local library program to offering training on tea to the staff at Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills.

Participating in charitable activities such as silent auctions is also important.

“It makes us feel we are part of the community,” she says.

Tea And Good Company

An emphasis on good customer service is also key, Mueller says.

“I hire purely for attitude and how pleasant you are.”

As she writes about her employees on Silver Tips’ Facebook page, “I tell them I can teach them all about tea, but I can’t teach them how to be nice.”

It all makes for a memorable experience, one praised by countless customers on the tearoom’s very active social media outlets.

In addition to a charming place to have a cozy lunch or a leisurely afternoon break, Silver Tips has a retail element. There is a large collection of tea cups, pots and cozies as well as tea-themed gifts. And, of course, there are those walls of green-and-gold canisters filled with some 150 varieties of loose tea, all available for purchase.

Having people comfortable enough to buy loose tea to prepare at home is especially rewarding to Mueller.

“It is so gratifying to see people now just buying tea.”

Over the years, especially at the start, Mueller says she tailored selections to people’s tastes.

“We changed based on what people asked for,” she says.

The menu has also expanded.

“Our food is a little eclectic. The egg salad is not what you expect. Our eggs have been marinated in a Souchong tea.”

Today, the Silver Tips offerings include everything from savories such as samosas, soups, salads and wraps to sweets including scones, fruit tarts, English puddings and cakes. Of course, there is a traditional afternoon tea, as well.

Portions are generous, complemented by hot tea and in warmer months, iced teas and lemonades.

And for those who must have their coffee? There are other places for that, Mueller says, gamely mentioning Coffee Labs Roasters just around the corner.

At Silver Tips, Mueller’s passion takes center stage.

“We know tea, so we try to really focus on what we do well.”

For more, visit silvertipstea.com.

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