AKRON, Ohio — The COVID-19 pandemic has been tough for small businesses, but one Summit County woman used downtime during the pandemic to build up her business and expand. Now, she’s introducing more and more people to the magic of tea time.
When you sit down at The Tea Lady in Akron, you get much more than just a beverage.
“I like the tea, I drink it at home, but not that type, it was really good,” Ray Jacksits, a first-time customer, said.
“It's about the atmosphere, the ambiance… it’s about the whole experience,” longtime customer LaQuinta Sojourner said. “She also teaches etiquette. What you should do, what you shouldn’t do.”
It is an experience Renea Woods Baylor, the tea lady herself, has spent her entire life admiring.
“That comes from my mom. If you check my sisters and my table and my mom's table, they're always set,” Woods Baylor said. “I just thought it was so beautiful when I was little, to see such beautiful china and crystal. So I just kind of grew up with that and just loving her artistic ability to do that. And we all do it, we all still set our tables.”
She also spent years perfecting it with her husband, Dennis Baylor.
For years, they hosted mother and daughter teas at their home that soon grew to larger venues like church halls. But then, Baylor got cancer and died in 2017.
“Right before he passed he asked me, what are we going to do with all this stuff, you know with all the China and the crystal. And I said I'm gonna use it,” Woods Baylor said.
In 2018, she opened The Tea Lady inside the Delaware Building in downtown Akron.
It wasn’t a hard decision for her. Her grandparents owned a construction business and her parents owned women’s shoes and handbag stores.
“It really just boils down to me watching my parents build such an amazing business. And to me at the time, it was a very hard time in the 60s where people black and white, there was no coming together. So for them to do that, in that time. And in the neighborhood where we're at, it was really half and half in that community,” Woods Baylor said “And they did an amazing job. I was inspired by that and I know, like eight, nine years old. I'm gonna be a business owner. I knew that. I had no doubt.
The Tea Lady blossomed from the lessons Woods Baylor learned from her parents, both in business and aesthetics.
“My tea room is more of an English-style tea room, so I keep it really according to Queen Elizabeth-style,” Woods Baylor said.
It started with just a small room that fit four to six people.
“It just started growing and growing and I did that intentionally, it was part of my plan, not to start big but to learn, make my mistakes while I'm small,” Woods Baylor said.
Construction in downtown Akron shut the tea room down except for the weekends and then the pandemic made it a full closure from March 2020 until January 2021, but she didn’t let the time just pass her by.
“I started really getting knee-deep in my marketing. I worked with the Akron Urban League to start developing my website,” Woods Baylor said. “I did it by myself. I'm an accountant by trade, I don't know how to do any of that, but with their help and assistance, I was able to do that. I'm really proud of it because I was able to do that without a lot of technical support.”
She also began selling her tea wholesale.
In January, she reopened with strong online tea sales bolstered by her website and a larger tea room to prepare for a big move across the street to the Akron Civic Theatre later this year.
“We've been booked ever since. I mean, I'm always doing a tea whether it's in the middle of the week, on a weekend, or Sundays,” Woods Baylor said.
Even with more changes on the way, Woods Baylor is making sure The Tea Lady stays true to its roots.
“I really want it to be a reflection of who I am, what you would experience. When you come in, I want it to be beyond what you expect,” Woods Baylor said.
If you want to experience the elegance and sophistication for yourself, The Tea Lady is currently taking reservations.
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