Steeped in Tradition

The women behind Alice’s Tea Cup, sisters Lauren and Haley Fox, dish on their popular tea houses

| 02 May 2022 | 10:24

While growing up on the Upper West Side, Lauren and Haley Fox always went to high tea, a tradition started by their mother who took them to hotels like The Plaza, The Peninsula and The St. Regis. That part of their childhood remained with the sisters as they became adults and would attend afternoon tea together and talk about opening their own tea house one day.

The pair’s dream became a reality in 2001 when they signed the lease for Alice’s Tea Cup, a day after September 11. “A lot of people were saying to me, ‘You don’t know what the city’s gonna be like right now, people are thinking about leaving.’” Haley, 47, explained. “And I thought, ‘I really think this is the perfect time for this. People need a place that’s exactly like what we’re trying to create.’”

The brand now has three locations — which they refer to as “chapters” — in its trilogy of eateries, the original Upper West Side location on 73rd, another on East 64th and the last in Brooklyn Heights, which opened in 2019. The restaurants’ “sweet spot” is hosting bridal and baby showers every weekend.

And special attention is given to their littlest customers, and all the children who come through their doors are sprinkled with fairy dust. “It was my idea. When we first opened, I was really into wearing sparkles on my eyes,” said Lauren, 51.

Celebrity clients include Amy Schumer — who gave the Alice’s a shout-out during her debut act at Madison Square Garden — Katie Holmes and Suri Cruise, Bernadette Peters and John Oliver. They even threw Jennifer Lopez’s sister’s baby shower and catered Ariana Grande’s birthday party.

During the pandemic, they opened and closed three times, because they wanted to be extra careful, but always stayed true to their original business model. Haley said, “We didn’t really try to pivot in a different direction and do delivery, because what we sell is an experience.”

How did the idea come about?

Haley: We were living in Los Angeles and we would go out to afternoon tea together because it’s a tradition in our family. We started to fantasize about owning our own tea place kind of as a joke and what we would do differently. And then I found myself wanting to be back in New York City and came back and was looking for a job in film working as a director of development and my heart wasn’t in it. And I said something to my then-husband who said, “Well you and Lauren always talked about opening up a tea place, why don’t you do that?” And I was like, “Ha ha ha.”

And one of the days that we talked about it, we happened to be walking by the “For Rent” sign at the West 73rd Street space, where it is now. And he casually was like, “That would be a cute tea spot.” And I looked and it was really, really tiny. It was a laser hair removal salon, actually. We have a convection oven; we don’t even have a real oven there because it’s grandfathered in ... I called Lauren ... started to write a business proposal ... got some advice on getting loans ... next thing I knew we were making an offer and opening a restaurant [Laughs].

How did you come up with the menu?

Haley: Lauren actually is the one who tweaked the scone recipe originally and then we hired a baker who ran with her scone recipe and then kind of tweaked it again. We knew we wanted afternoon tea sandwiches and to cover some of the traditional ones like cucumber, smoked salmon. But we wanted to be a little bit, what we call, turned on its ear, you know, Alice’s, Alice in Wonderland. So we spoke to a friend of mine who was dating someone in culinary school ... and we met and just kind of like loved each other and hired her to create the menu and she became our first chef.

What is your bestselling tea? Is it your Alice’s Tea?

Haley: Yes, definitely the Alice’s Blend, which is rose sencha with vanilla black tea. We loved the rose sencha, but it’s very strong on its own and the vanilla black is my favorite tea on its own. And Lauren likes more the greens and the whites, so we kind of came together on it.

What is your demographic of customers?

Lauren: It was a common misunderstanding that we were a child’s place and not just a child-friendly place for a while. And that has really changed. We do get a lot of families that come in, but we get a lot of young couples. On weekends, we get a really young, lively brunch crowd. We get a lot of families that will come in together for reunions, which is really nice. We used to get an incredible amount of European tourists. It’s not, of course, that way at the moment but that’s mostly because with COVID people aren’t traveling as much. It is what our values are to be as welcoming and inclusive as possible, so we have a really diverse audience.

What are the pros and cons to working with your sister?

Haley: The great part is you can lean on each other and you understand. You can just be like, “I just can’t today.” We care about each other’s lives more than the business, so it does help to have that empathy and connection. The other good part is that we know each other’s weaknesses, so we kind of instinctively know where to pick up for each other. I guess the downside would be that because we know each other and can forgive each other, you can say anything, so when you’re in a mood, you kind of are mean to each other, really take it out on each other.

Can you tell us about your celebrity clients?

Lauren: Yes, because some of them are very public about it. Amy Schumer is our biggest champion. She’s the kindest person, she couldn’t be lovelier to our staff. And she’s gone so above and beyond to talk about us, promote us, she’s held interviews in our restaurants, photo shoots. She was shot by Annie Leibovitz for Vogue, and she specifically said, “I want to shoot at Alice’s.” We were closed for a day so that Amy could do her photo shoot.

Haley: Filmed part of “Trainwreck” there.

Lauren: Her debut show – she’s the first woman comedian to play Madison Square Garden – and that night, she shouted us out during her act.

Haley: She said, I think, that her idea of exercise is walking around the reservoir and then getting a scone at Alice’s Tea Cup.”

What are your future plans?

Haley: There are so many parts of the business that we see so much potential in. Cakes being one of them and catering being another, wedding showers offsite that are not just small catering events. And we’d like to be able to grow those sides of the businesses. We’re not sure that we’re gonna do that without a partnership or selling to a larger group, so that’s really where our focus has been recently. First is recovering from the pandemic and getting back to pre-pandemic numbers and everything.

Lauren: We hear so much from people who come from different cities that “This would be so great where I live.” And we feel like the brand has such incredible potential for growth and expansion and for years we’ve talked about, it’s kind of the dream, to maybe talk to a boutique hotel group that wants to put a tea room in the lobby of their hotels. How perfect a fit would that be?