Sean and Michelle Sinclair, owners of Shelly’s Tea Rooms at 51 Court St. Downtown, sharing their story of how they got back to England before coming to America and opening their new venture.
It’s a story they share, appropriately enough, over a cup of tea and some scones.
Sean worked in auto sales and Michelle in retail before rearranging the desktop in 2007.
Their brief bio on the menu states: “We have always enjoyed the taste of visiting and enjoying the tea rooms.” “However, we found that we were often disappointed, either the service was poor or the food was so.”
According to Shaun, their experience of living in England and visiting tea rooms throughout their lives is perhaps the most important element of all.
“This authenticity makes a difference,” he said.
One from Shelly led to the second, with one in a 15th-century building near Canterbury and the other near Dover, for over 14 years. They were chosen as the best British tea rooms in 2019 and 2020.
Having visited America several times over the past 25 years, Sean and Michelle decided to throw it all up in the air once again with a determination to bring their successful venture into the land of coffee and cake, not tea and scones.
They made numerous trips back and forth trying to find exactly the right location. Plymouth hit them as an ideal location, due to its historical nature and its obvious ties to England.
“It’s iconic, and it has the most European feel to the other sites we’ve looked at,” Shaun said.
They found the site downtown and signed a lease a little over two years ago.
So close, but so far
Everything seemed ready, then the global pandemic struck, leaving the Sinclair family, including son Thomas, 11, and daughter Charlotte, 18, unable to leave England.
Among the few things that are immune to COVID, as it turns out, is their rental agreement. During 2020 and 2021, they made payments in the once dormant and unrenovated space thousands of miles away.
“It was hard,” Sean said.
Once the contractors had access to the site, Sean and Michele reached out to them via emails and photos. Differences in vocabulary didn’t help, as Sean noted that they considered there was a difference of opinion about whether toilet referred to the toilet or the sink. The similarity between ‘candlesticks’ and ‘cakes’ also caused a bit of confusion at some point.
“In the end, it ended up just like we envisioned,” Shaun said.
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Visas were finally issued to them last December. They didn’t waste any time getting on a flight—that is, after they found one that wouldn’t put their Golden Retriever, Buddy, in a cargo hold, which ended up owning the family’s land in Ontario.
The tea room opened at the end of February and is already very popular among tourists and locals.
“We’ve had amazing support,” Shaun said. “It was great.”
Such support was evident from the number of tables with empty teacups and plates of pastry crumbs that Michelle proceeded to clean up last Friday after a mid-afternoon rush.
And while she was doing it, an older couple came over for the first time. I sat them down straight away and spoke more to someone serving guests in the house than someone who does because it’s their job.
The wife was English, which gave her credibility to determine if Shelly’s wife was up to snuff.
The tea room seemed to have passed the test as their compatriot watched the show of three layers of pastries, finger sandwiches, and dessert that Michelle placed in front of them.
“That’s beautiful,” she said.
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Challenges and modifications
Of course, not everyone brings the same level of experience to the tea room, so Sean took advantage of the time they spent in England to compile a pamphlet, The Complete How-to’s Guide to the English Tea Room.
“I knew people had a lot of questions,” he said.
The American image of the Tea Room as a venue for bridal showers, baby showers, and little girls wearing pretty dresses (and maybe even a tiara or two), Shelly’s can be reserved for those showers, as well as other events, and it serves “Prince and Princess High Tea” to children under ten.
“I know the tea rooms are seen as androgynous here,” said Sean, “to be fully thought of.”
The majestic, bodied Sean, while certainly friendly, is far from that picture, but he said he’s typical of anyone you might find in such a setting in England.
“Cafes are like Starbucks,” he said.
With life apparently not testing their resolve enough to start a new life in a new country, the family recently received their furniture and other possessions from abroad.
“We slept on air beds,” Michelle said. “What should have taken six weeks took six months.”
Michelle said there have been adjustments to the family, noting, for example, that Ben’s former school was in a small village. He is now enrolled at Plymouth South Primary School
“His whole school was fit for that gym,” she said.
down to work
Products are baked on site, with vegan and gluten offerings that reflect Schon’s nearly life-long plant. They noted making adjustments to their recipes to account for the difference in texture and gluten content between the American and English version of staples such as flour and sugar.
“We had to do a lot of tweaking, but we got it,” she said.
The result, it seems, is fitting for a queen, with a cardboard statue of Her Royal Highness waiting in a small side hall to greet – and sometimes surprise – anyone who passes by.
“It still surprises me sometimes,” said Michelle.
Sweets, cakes and desserts can be ordered individually or as part of a full presentation, such as ‘The Windsor’, which includes hibiscus iced tea in these warmer months (a hot wine tea in winter), before serving crustless finger sandwiches, two scones and a selection From sweets and a choice of loose leaf tea.
The selection of teas spans five pages of the menu, with a total of 102 featured offerings.
While teas familiar to Americans, such as Earl Gray breakfast, English and chamomile, are on the menu, other lesser-known flavors under familiar headings like black, green, oolong, herbal, and decaffeinated coffee are also waiting to be sipped.
Nigiri Tiger Hill Estate tea, Lychee Congou, Young Hyson, Formosa, Witch Blend and Blue Lady are just a few of the more unusual blends that curious customers can choose from.
Shelly’s offers a variety of healing teas and what it describes as “quirky” teas as well.
Number 84 on the list is “It’s His Wrong Tea,” a blend that has reportedly helped with premenstrual syndrome symptoms. Cotton candy is #93, and Pina Colado has five options under that. They also offer milk tea, hot chocolate, iced tea and yes even coffee.
The couple said that there were only a few teas they knew of one client, or another that they hadn’t tried, leading Michelle to conclude perhaps shocking.
“I think they like tea more here than in England,” she said.