BRANDON — The group of eight women finished eating lunch, sipping hot tea and playing bridge. It was time to leave the Tea Cup Tea Room, but first they gathered in front of the brick fireplace for a photo.
"Who's taking the picture?" one lady asked.
"I'll take it. That's what I like to do," said Lynn Davis, owner of the Brandon tearoom.
"Tea on three: One, two, three, tea ...," Davis said, snapping the photo. "Take care. I'll see y'all later."
Davis has always had a knack for entertaining crowds and hosting gatherings. She picked it up from her parents, who often threw picnics and cocktail parties with hors d'oeuvres and elaborate spreads when she was growing up in New Jersey.
"It was just a lovely, social atmosphere, and I remember that," said Davis, a 46-year-old mother of two. "And I remember being a kid and not being able to be a part of it."
About a year ago, Davis turned her hobby into a profession when she opened the Tea Cup, a Southern-style tearoom on Lithia-Pinecrest Road. The Tea Cup can easily be mistaken for a house because, well, it used to be one. And it's no coincidence, Davis said, that her customers feel right at home.
"It is a home, absolutely," she said. "That's the charm of it. And for me, it's like inviting someone over to my house."
The Tea Cup's menu includes more than 35 bottomless loose- leaf teas, mostly English-style, and an array of lunch and dessert items. On the way to each of the three dining rooms, all of which have a different theme, customers walk through the gift shop, which used to be a living room.
"In Brandon there are so many places to go eat," said Suzy Davis, a business owner who brings clients to the Tea Cup several times a month (and isn't related to Lynn Davis). "This is just unique."
Lynn Davis knew exactly what she wanted the Tea Cup to be like from a hospitality aspect, but she needed help on the business end. She hired a management group for advice on running a restaurant, and the role of handling taxes and finances fell to her husband, Paul Davis, an engineer at Tampa Electric Co.
When the Davises, of Valrico, bought the 2,200-square-foot house for $287,000 in April 2006, Lynn had no idea it would take so long to get permits from the county. It took 20 months, but she finally got the building zoned for commercial-neighborhood use and ready for opening in December 2007.
"Everything just took so much longer than I thought," she said. "That was the most difficult part of it."
The zoning permit requires her to keep the Tea Cup looking residential on the outside, but the inside was remodeled and transformed from a 1960s three-bedroom, two-bath ranch house to a cafelike dining establishment.
"I want the tearoom to be a place where people want to come and just feel like this is their place," she said. "They can come here and hang out and feel like family."
With about $500,000 in renovations, every room in the house was torn apart and made restaurant friendly. Two of the bedrooms were converted to dining rooms that each seat 14 people. One is called the "Periwinkle Room," named for its lavender walls. The other is called the "Shabby Chic Room," which Davis considers the "girliest" room in the house with its flowers and antique furniture. In between those rooms is the women's restroom, which looks residential except for the torn-out shower and tub.
On the other end of the house lies the "Cottage Garden Room," the largest of the dining rooms and the former garage. The kitchen cabinets were removed and industrial appliances were installed. And for the handful of male customers, the "Man Cave," or men's restroom, sits across from a linen closet that was turned into a service station.
"It's a homey atmosphere, an elegant home atmosphere," said Barbara McCollugh, a retired school secretary who had lunch at the Tea Cup with her bridge club on a recent Tuesday afternoon. "It's just decorated so pretty, and it's not noisy."
The personal touch
With the country in a recession and the economy in turmoil, the concept of success in 2008 can be relative. While many businesses are fading, Davis recently shared a birthday cake with customers to celebrate the Tea Cup's first year.
Business slowed drastically in the summer, but fall and winter have been better, Davis said. And with consumer spending down, she's thankful to have survived so far.
"We could've closed and said, 'We just can't make this,' " said Davis, a former stay-at-home mom who had never owned a business. "But my husband and I are so certain of the concept. We're just going to ride out the storm."
Word of mouth has helped the Tea Cup build its customer base, Davis said. McCollugh, who recently became a regular, said Davis' hospitality is the reason people return.
"Lynn really works hard at this, and I can't even imagine the hours that she puts in," McCollugh said.
Whether she's helping the kitchen staff prepare chicken salad or delivering food and tea to the tables, Davis works about 50 hours a week and plays a role in every area of the Tea Cup's operation. But what sticks out to many is that she makes it a point to get to know the customers.
Jade Mothershed, manager of the Tea Cup, worked at a tearoom that closed after being open for just six months. Mothershed, 26, said Davis' customer service has been crucial in attracting business.
"She makes sure she touches every table before they leave, whether it's when they first walk in or while they're eating," Mothershed said. "Her guests are like her life."
Mingling with customers is something Davis thrives on. She said it gives her a leg up on other restaurants that are "highly commercialized."
"That's the best part of it for me," she said. "That's why I do it, because I like to be with the people. I enjoy having them feel like they've come over to my house for a cup of tea."
Kevin Smetana can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 661-2439.