BY KRISTI FISH | MIRROR REPORTER — An eccentric and slightly eclectic space welcomes those who walk through the doors of 219 W. Wayne St.
Clara J’s Tea Room is more than just a space for tea lovers. It’s become a place for big and small celebrations, a space for nostalgia and a space for seasonal treats.
According to Gretchen Fayerweather, the owner of Clara J’s, a banker built the home in 1837. Since then, it has housed many families and stories inside it – from doctors’ offices to an insurance company to holistic medicine – before finally finding its place as a tea room.
Rebecca Jaessing opened the tea room in 2005 and named it after her aunt. She ran the business for more than a decade before Gretchen took over. Gretchen’s mom was friends with Rebecca and so she regularly visited the tea room over the years. She was also a professor for culinary arts hospitality and nutrition at Owens Community College, so when Rebecca needed extra kitchen help, Gretchen could send some students over.
Over the years, Rebecca had hinted to Gretchen she needed to sell the business as she couldn’t run it herself forever. The chance then came for Gretchen to work at the tea room for a few months over the summer.
“I got to work everywhere here that summer to be like, ‘Is this what I want to do?’ and I absolutely loved it,” Gretchen said. “I loved everybody that worked here. I loved all the customers. I loved all the food.”
She made the decision with her family to purchase the building in 2017, followed by purchasing the business in 2018. Gretchen hasn’t tried to change too much of the space since she acquired it.
“The decor, we try to keep it vintage. Certainly, it is more feminine than you would see at most restaurants,” Gretchen said. “All of it was started with our founder, Rebecca. I try to maintain that same type of décor. A lot of it is tea-related items: tea pictures, tea paintings, vintage linens on the tables. Mostly, we just try and keep it tea-inspired and Victorian-inspired.”
The tables are adorned with colorful linens and mismatched plates, cups and teapots. Some of the pieces have even come from customers who want their old family pieces to find a new, loving home.
The menu, though, is the most important part of the tea room. In stock at the shop are approximately 150 different loose-leaf teas. Each month, the shop changes the tea menu to feature 30 teas, including black tea, oolong, green tea, herbal tea, rooibos and more based on the season, but regulars know they can ask for their favorites at any time.
“My favorite tea, there’s a top three,” Gretchen said. “We have a milky oolong and it is so, so good. It’s an oolong tea, so a brown tea, and when they’re processing it and drying it, they actually steam milk underneath it, so the flavor of the milk kind of gets into the tea, but there’s no dairy in it. It’s got this sweetness from the milk.”
Next on Gretchen’s list of favorites is the Earl Grey vanilla and the lychee rose. Both are unique with flavor additions. She also likes Forty Winks, an herbal tea that helps with sleeping. Many of the teas sold at the shop have different health benefits and some are even local. Fangboner Farms in Holland sells several of its teas at the shop.
“It’s fun to try and find a tea for somebody that’s not really a tea drinker or we’ll have coffee drinkers that come in. It’s fun to find a tea that will work for them,” Gretchen said.
While the tea menu changes every month, the food menu is changed five times throughout the year.
“We do it seasonally: spring, summer, fall, winter, and we do a holiday menu that’s a little bit different in November and December. It’s more holiday-inspired food,” Gretchen said. “The seasonal menus, we try to make them seasonal flavors. Some things will stay on the menu from one season to the next because they were so popular. We have some staples on the menu, too.”
The ribbon sandwiches – a nod to the 1930s and ’40s, Gretchen said – and cucumber sandwiches are staples when it comes to tea at Clara J’s. The menu is typically filled with other sandwiches, quiche and lunch dishes that come with sides like fruit, salad, chips and hummus.
For those who might want to lean in to the tea theme even more, proper tea is perfect. A combination of afternoon tea – typically finger sandwiches and sweets – and high tea – a typical dinner in England– the proper tea has sandwiches, sweets, savories and scones.
At the proper tea, guests are treated to quick bites of several different dishes and pots of tea. It’s not hard for guests to be at the table for two hours over lunch, chatting and enjoying their food.
“It slows down here,” Gretchen said.
This is also a big reason Clara J’s Tea Room requires reservations for proper tea, which is served at 11:00 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday. The tea room is open for lunch on Tuesday through Saturday from 11:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.
The job of running the kitchen, the dining area and gift shop on busy days is no easy task, Gretchen said, and she credits her staff for making it such a success.
“It takes a team,” Gretchen said. “I couldn’t do any of this without the people I work with on a daily basis.”