Saturday, January 1, 2011

Tea or Coffee, anyone?

Tea at Sweet Simplici-Tea
A few years ago when we returned from Europe, I noticed that a tea shop had opened on Main Street in Sykesville. The street extends a few blocks from the Patapsco River and the railroad tracks, which provide a beautiful backdrop to the mid-nineteenth century architecture in the historic center. This isn't much here: a few good restaurants, salons, specialty gift stores. Back in the day, I hear Sykesville was a bustling small town, hosting grocery stores and even a bowling alley. But in the mid-1980s, they moved Rt. 32 to bypass the town and things changed. The town is still lovely and the setting perfect. It is one of the reasons we were attracted to the area. But in the tough economy we were particularly worried about waking up to find a clapboard town that would eventually follow the path of so many other small towns. We decided to try to frequent the Main street businesses when we could. So I was delighted to find Sweet Simplici-Tea.

Main Street, Sykesville, MD

Historic Rail tunnel at Sykesville, MD

My son and I first entered the tea room on a late September morning in 2008. The place that day was empty and it gave us a chance to really talk to our waitress and eventually the owners. The restaurant had not been open long at that point, only a few months. Two sisters, Lisa and Robyn, had joined forces to bring tea and scones in a period setting to the town. The tea room is distinctly feminine, with lots of purples and pinks adorning the walls. But the scones we tasted that day were unbelievably delicious, and our waitress, Robyn's daughter Lauren, was enchanting. She had returned from teaching in Africa not that long before and carried in her an energy that was infectious. Her ability to relate to children was amazing. My son and I were hooked, and we decided we'd go to tea every Saturday morning after we swam. And we did for nearly a year. In the first few months some days we'd be the only guests and we would be anxious for them. But as the New Year turned, so did the business, and it seemed to catch like wildfire. When our schedule took us away from our weekly visits, we no longer had our guaranteed spot! The tearoom was full most Saturdays and evolving.

Sweet Simpli-Tea storefront, Sykesville, MD

Lisa runs the front of the house. She's the face and the savvy businesswoman. In the last year or so, they began having their own teas blended from a company in Pennsylvania. Of course, you can't really buy local tea leaves or coffee beans, but you can carefully choose your supplier and look to support the local business that bringing those products into the area. Lisa has focused on providing the highest level of service to her guests where they can relax and enjoy an unfettered drink and a bite to eat with friends. She has partnered with other local businesses to find ways that they can gain from each others clientele. And she loves the tea.

Robyn is a nurse who works full time at a local hospital during the week. Then she shifts her attention to the food for Sweet Simplici-Tea for the weekends.  Truly amazing. She likes to cook and experiment. Her scone selections vary depending on the season, as do the jams or creams that they are served with. My personal favourite is cherry chocolate chip, but there are other great ones and seasonal choices like pumpkin. Sometimes there are savory scones like rosemary parmesan. I haven't had one I didn't like. Robyn is goofy and full of goofy ideas. She likes to wear themed aprons and decorate for the occasion. She loves planning for birthday parties at the shop. She also plans and makes all the "full teas", which are really full meals of bite-sized food. You get a tray of little goodies with quiches, small tea sandwiches, little desserts, all generally planned around the season, in addition to scones and tea. For the really hungry, they even offer choices that include salad and sorbet. A full tea will take a couple of hours and normally experiment with a few tea choices while we talk between courses, though truthfully we always come back to our favourite, Buckaneer.

Nowadays, you are wise to have a reservation for Sweet Simplici-Tea on the weekend. It is almost always full for the 11-4 opening time. Special events too mostly sell out, but are a wonderful way to spend the evening. We no longer go weekly because of other things in life, but when we do visit, we love it. and it really connects us with local business in an empowering way. It reminds me of Cheers - it's really nice to go somewhere that everyone knows your name.
Baldwin's Station Restaurant on the tracks, Sykesville, MD

What you won't find at Sweet Simplici-Tea is coffee. The smell of coffee is too overpowering, so they won't carry it there. I try to buy my coffee from Fair Trade suppliers and small roasters. That really isn't that easy locally, at least not out in Carroll County. I can get Zekes, which is a Baltimore roast, from the organic market, Moms, in Jessup, but I hardly ever go there.  I guess that is my problem, I don't have these fancy organic markets nearby and I'm not really willing to drive all over just to go to them. This is why I've never entered a Whole Foods. (gasp)

In any case, coffee. I like good coffee in the morning so I was thrilled to find a coffee roaster at the Wesminster Farmer's Market in September. Dave Baldwin and his daughter, Erin, were there greeting customers and selling their Furnace Hills coffee. The coffee is all grown using organic methods and at high altitudes. They are using an experienced supplier to connect them into the fair trade market (though I'm not sure if they are using certified Fair Trade supplies) and using a dollar from each bag to support various charitable causes.

Erin of Furnace Hills Coffee
Dave has taught Erin, who has Down Syndrome, to roast the beans to perfection in small home roasters. As a young developmentally disabled adult, this gives her a real avenue to a productive life, to provide for herself essentially, and to help others at the same time. And guess what?? That coffee is really good! I'm all for a great charity, but I still want a good cup of coffee in the morning. :) I personally have tried two of their five blends and enjoyed them both: Telunas Beach Blend and the Black Diamond Blend. When I met them at the market they made a great impression. Dave is very engaging and someone you want to support. I was surprised and delighted a few weeks later when I returned and he remembered not just my face, but my name. Recently I ran out of coffee and went to their house on Christmas Eve to pick up a few pounds. This is the kind of experience that drives home how directly your supporting your neighbor when you buy locally. The Baldwins live in an average neighborhood of row homes outside of Westminster, an area called Furnace Hills. Nothing fancy. Indeed, I had originally hoped to get some photos for the blog with Erin and the roasters, but for lack of space, they had to put up all the roasters from the dining table to get ready for Christmas! The good news is that in the next month or so, Furnace Hills Coffee will get a storefront on Main Street in Westminster. I'll be back to visit them and snap some photos then, and I'll post an update with the address.  In the meantime, check them out online. If you're a coffee fan in Carroll County, invest your indulgence locally and give them a try.

1 comment:

  1. Couldn't agree more about Dave being engaging and someone you want to support! Having worked with (for) him for the last six years, I can tell you that he is the real deal. He remembers names because he cares about people. While I don't drink coffee, (Diet DP is my poison) I know that Erin, Dave and Furnace Hills Coffee will be a great success!