Tea shops were among the earliest restaurants that built their business around customers arriving by car. In the densely populated Northeast in particular, roadways were thick with the small eating places which specialized in lunches and afternoon teas for vacationers. They also made up box lunches for automobile parties and rented out rooms to overnight guests. In hot weather many offered an amenity now vanished, sleeping porches. People who traveled by car in those days tended to be well-off. City tea rooms had already established an upscale cachet and this association no doubt served the roadside places well.
One of the first roadside tea shops was the Tiffin Shop in White Plains, New York, which was in business by 1906. A story in Town and Country magazine titled “A Tiffin Shop for Motorists” noted it featured “cool green tints and Japanese prints, mission furniture, nasturtiums on the tables, a tinkly wind-harp,” as well as sandwiches, salads and “cake served on an embroidered doily.”
Most of the tea rooms and shops in outlying areas were run by women in their own homes. Letters to advice columns such as the following from “Flora” in 1909 show how eager many were to earn money using their housewifely skills: “I am thinking of starting a wayside inn or tearoom for ‘autoists’ this summer, and would ask you to give me some ideas if you will. I have thought it best to serve some ‘specialties.’ We have a grand empty front room and a beautiful, wide, grassy front yard for resting. Any suggestions as to furnishing room, menu, and way of serving would be a great help.” Included in the column’s advice was to use the finest ingredients and hang a sign featuring a teakettle.
© Jan Whitaker, 2008