Meet Quest Maker Gay Geiger Hughes
Quest Makers are women in their 40s and beyond who've declared
"now it's my time," and then set off on their own journeys to realize their dreams. Every month a Quest Maker is featured in the FREE e-newsletter, Your Next Quest Chronicles. Click here to enjoy archived issues.
Quest Maker Gay Geiger Hughes
From Sundays with her grandmother
To a passion that suits her to a "tea"
I first learned about Gay from one of my mentors, Valerie Young of Changing Course. However, my connection to Gay is a double one. Her sister-in-law Wendy Geiger and I both attended Valerie Young's Profiting from Your Passions© consulting program two years ago. When Valerie heard from Wendy about Grace's passion for tea and where it has taken her, she thought "Quest Maker." She was right!
When she was a young girl, Gay fell in love with tea at formal Sunday dinners at her grandmother's home. Gay's love for high tea was kindled by a close friend who shared her love of all things English, which in turn, led Gay to host tea parties for family and friends. Several years ago when her daughter left for college, Gay decided "now was the time" to pursue her passion for all things tea by opening very own tea room so she could share her love of tea with others.
She has her tea room, albeit in a different way from how she first envisioned it.
In this month's interview, you'll learn how Gay's quest has put her in the driver's seat.
You have a passion for tea, Gay.Where does that come from?
When I was a child, my father’s mother would have my family over for dinners on Sundays. My grandmother was endearingly formal; there would be linens and china and she loved serving petit fours or homemade meringues with tea. My love of tea and its ambiance started here— Sundays with my grandmother.
When I was in college, I experimented with exotic teas and then my tastes developed into more traditional black teas such as Darjeeling and English Breakfast. My daughter Colleen attended a Montessori elementary school where I became good friends with the mother of one of her friend’s and we discovered we were kindred spirits. We are huge anglophiles.
Annika was European, growing up in Sweden. She was much more worldly about teas due to her travels to different countries and experiencing the art of taking tea. She introduced me to afternoon tea by visiting different tea rooms and shops all around N.E. That’s when I really fell in love with the experience of afternoon tea. At this time I started baking. I loved making scones and they were delicious and buttery. . .To this day, I still love making scones more than any other item found at a tea.
At what point in your life did you decide to embark on your quest?
About 10 - 12 years ago when Colleen was about 8 or10, I started doing tea parties for friends. I would have Valentine’s Day teas for mothers and daughters in my home as well as full afternoon tea parties to celebrate friends’ birthdays. People seemed to enjoy them and they planted a seed in my head that I should think about doing my teas on a bigger scale, tea parties for the public, such as catering, and more professionally. I really listened to that and started slowly doing catered afternoon teas for acquaintances, for our town library and small businesses. I did that for about three years, strictly word of mouth and referrals with no advertising.
My underlying desire was to have my own tea shop. That was my goal and it was something I was going to do some day in the near future.
|An indoor tea party|
My business started to expand and I started renting out the two front parlors at the Holliston Historical Society for full afternoon teas. People would preregister to attend. I was also slowly branching out doing more varied catered tea activities. For two years, I also catered tea events on Sundays for a tea shop in a nearby town.
How has your quest unfolded?
Colleen, my daughter, went off to college and I said to myself “now is the perfect time to step it up” and take a serious look at owning my own tea room. A good friend who is the mother of a high school friend of Colleen’s, Pat, has a very strong business background. She used to work for NASA in management and organization. She offered to help me get the business off the ground and write my business plan.
We started to meet with the SBDC (Small Business Development Center) through Clark University as well as with SCORE (Service Corps of Retired Executives). SCORE’s counselor hooked me up with someone who had a retail background and we met 3-4 times. SCORE’s counselors were more idea people, saying this was a good idea or you may want to retool this idea. SBDC was more hands on with the business plan. They wanted to see the nuts and bolts of the business plan and counsel us on the development of the plan itself.
|Gay and Pat|
Pat is such a wizard with numbers and in creating the business plan. In fact, SBDC wanted to hire her! I was very lucky to have her on board.
I started looking at commercial real estate properties. I quickly got an education regarding the cost and risks of having your own a brick and mortar shop. The cost of renting was high for me. As the renter, I would have had to put in a kitchen area and make sure to meet all of the town’s requirements. It would have cost well over $10,000 to install a handicapped accessible bathroom not to mention the cost involved with installing a kitchen. I had no savings to bring to the table. I was going to be looking at banks for business loans. It stopped me in my tracks. I didn’t know how it was possible.
Then I started to think, what can I do that is outside the box, a little unusual, unique? Where the risks would not be as great as opening a brick and mortar shop. I started slowly to think of a mobile tea room. That’s how I came up with the concept of a truck but I didn’t share this idea with anyone at first.
|Just look for this sign!|
Then we had a meeting with our SBDC counselor, who asked me: “Have you thought of anything that’s different?” When I told him of my idea for a mobile tea room, he said: “You need to run with that idea, explore it some more and do some research.” And I did. This was before the gourmet food trucks came on the scene. It was hard to gather information and facts since no one had ever operated a mobile tearoom before. The information out there was for your local hot dog or ice cream truck. I had to combine these facts with those from brick and mortar tea rooms.
Then I had to consider locations. The idea of flowers and beautiful settings, such as a garden center could be a beautiful location for a mobile tea room. I also discovered that large, high end nurseries wanted to become destination places where their customers could spend hours shopping and eating. I approached Weston Nurseries in Hopkinton, Mass. and Russell’s Garden Center in Wayland, Mass. Both liked the idea. That first year in business I was at Weston Nurseries one day a week and at Russell’s two days a week.
We completed the business plan with the blessings of the SBDC. I met with my bank, completed the loan paperwork, and luckily was granted a business loan. Now I had to buy a truck and it had to be just the right truck. Pat actually found a Grumman Olson truck on eBay that had been used as a cappuccino and espresso truck in New Jersey. On her way back from visiting her daughter in Pennsylvania, Pat stopped in New Jersey to examine it. It was equipped with everything I would need to make cups of tea and store food products.
|Inside the tea truck|
The interior was beautifully outfitted with Pergo floors, pine cabinetry, and copper coated hand hammered tin walls. We needed to work on the outside of the truck; to make it eye catching. So my second biggest expense after buying the truck was the vinyl wrap for the exterior of the truck. This would be my advertising. It is a beautiful moving billboard with a digital photograph of an English cottage with flowered window boxes. People are drawn to it. They even pull over to the side of the road to have their pictures taken with the truck!
|Tea truck, wrapped!|
How did you think of the name for the tea room?
My first name is Gay. Grace was my maternal grandmother’s name. When I first informed my mother and aunts that I was going to open a tea business, they all gasped and asked if I knew that my grandmother Grace was going to open up a tea room one month before she passed away. I never knew this, but felt after hearing this story that it was my “destiny” to have a tea business, and decided I had to pay homage to my grandmother by including her name.
What changes has this brought to your life?
As soon as I had the truck set up with the vinyl wrap, I needed to get the business up and running as quickly as possible. My first year was spent at the nurseries, and I quickly realized I wasn’t pulling in enough revenue just by being at the nurseries. The Mobile Tea Room needed to attend some large functions. The Codman Estate’s Craft Festival in Lincoln, Mass., was the first large function and it was a success.
So I started to add on more events. I had also contacted the Minute Man National Park in Concord to let them know about my business. I heard back from them in January 2009. They asked me to write a proposal to bid on being a food vendor. When I saw the information they sent me, I knew they wouldn’t choose me; I thought they would want someone to sell food for families such as hot dogs and hamburgers. That freed me to be creative and I wrote a 21-page proposal, just for fun.
|At the Old North Bridge
in the Minute Man National Park
Well, they picked me to be at the park! So last year from April—May, I went back to Russell’s. Then from June—November, I was at the Minute Man National Park near their Old North Bridge Visitors’ Center. At the national park, I set up tables and chairs under a beautiful tree with beautiful music in the background so my customers can enjoy having tea outside in a beautiful setting. I also attended large festivals such as the Decordova Art in the Park, and the Sudbury Colonial Faire. This year I have been invited to attend many large festivals.
My business operates part time because I was already working
4 days a week in financial services which I had to keep to be assured of a much needed income. I have a daughter in college! So from April through November, I was working 7 days a week. I had to work three days a week with my tea business because I wanted to develop a strong customer base as well as the need to make business loan payments.
|Tea items for sale|
I’ve always been passionate about tea and it continues to be a passion of mine. I‘ve discovered that I love to educate people about tea and share my love of it. I love when someone asks me about a particular tea and I can spend some time talking about the tea, where it's from, what is the proper way to brew the tea, and suggest other teas that may interest them. Tea itself broadens what I can bring to people. I love my customers who are also passionate about what I am doing. They love the concept of the mobile tea room. It has been truly wonderful to have that enthusiasm from them.
|More tea items for sale|
What I have noticed is that it is always evolving. There’s always something new around the corner. Right now I am slowly changing my business goals. I have added on something called a mobile tea shop. I will go to events without the truck such as a farmer’s market or craft shows and set up a tent, creating a look of your neighborhood tea shop. I set up tables with linens and sell bags of tea, cups and saucers and teapots, all the paraphernalia you need for making good quality tea at home. I see myself moving more in that direction. It’s good to know that you are always looking forward, for new things that can open up and change your goals as you move forward.
How did you make time for your dream?
I had been working part time so it wasn’t hard for me to carve out those three days for my business; those days were already open. It meant making adjustments because I wasn’t home with my husband and daughter. During the summer my daughter was able to work with me on the weekends. My husband has been wonderful. He makes dinners, does the laundry. He’s been very supportive that way. It just all seemed to work for all of us. I’m very grateful for that.
This season I have decided to not work on Fridays so that I can have one day off a week. I’m 54. The thought of continuing on this schedule of working seven days a week from April through November while sitting here with a knee brace made me realize I need to take care of my self. I will have one day off a week this season.
|Indoors or outdoors,
Gay is at your service
When I am not operating the truck during the winter, such as in December, I attend a few crafts festivals and set up a table to sell my bags of loose teas, cups and saucers, tea cozies, etc.. I enjoy this very much. One Sunday a month in January, February and March, I continue to rent out space at the Holliston Historical Society for catered afternoon teas. I also attended Russell’s Winter Farmer’s Market with a table for my Mobile Tea Shop in January, and February this year. It’s a more open schedule and I enjoy this more leisurely pace in the winter months.
Looking back, what's one thing you wish you had known as you set off on your journey?
The amount of physical work involved. Running the business as I originally created it, I had no idea of the amount of physical work. Today I am sitting here with a knee brace on from the work I did yesterday. (Patriot’s Day is a state holiday in Mass., commemorating the “shot heard round the world" and the beginning of the Revolutionary War. It is also opening day at the Minute Man National Park.)
I have to prep the truck which means I have to check the oil and the generator—all the mechanical things. I have to climb in and out of the truck a gazillion times to load the truck and unload the truck. There are many things that are set up at each site: tables and chairs, shelving, product, which are all stored in the truck before they are set up onsite. I’m climbing in and out to put food product in the refrigerator and storage. Then I drive to the location where I need to set up. I am on my feet serving food and bending all day long. At the end I am breaking it all down, bringing it home and unloading the truck. My day starts at 7:00am and doesn’t end till about 7:30-8:00pm. The amount of physical work that is needed for prepping, setting up, breaking down, and operating the truck are all things I wish I had known.
It never goes away. It is with you all the time. Even though I operate my business on just Saturdays and Sundays now, 7 days a week I am thinking about the ordering of supplies. I am constantly checking email. There are bills to be paid. Calls to return.
Because I am passionate about tea and my business, the amount of time and physical work required are easier to deal with. If you weren’t passionate about what you are doing, I could see how it could pull you down. If you are doing something you really love, then you are willing to put in the time and the effort.
What has helped you stay on your quest’s path?
|More tea items for sale|
It’s something I love to do. I keep moving along this path and continue to discover this world of tea. It is something important to me. I keep putting one foot in front of the other and I keep going. My belief is in my passion. My belief is in myself as well as the wonderful friends that I have. Annika and Pat were so instrumental in getting me to where I am today and I am so thankful to have them in my life.
What's been the secret to reaching your goals?
You just keep moving forward. Taking one step at a time. I am a big believer in that. Let’s look at what today has to offer, evaluate it and see how we can get the most out of today. Keep moving along.
Can you describe how you dealt with any obstacles on your adventure?
I’m laughing because there are obstacles constantly. Every week there are obstacles. You just deal with them and you keep moving forward.
I am operating a food truck and dealing with food and have to deal with each town and its Board of Health. Even though all of them have the same rules and regulations, they all interpret them differently. You think you have it all figured out and they throw you a curve. My philosophy is that you just deal with the obstacles. You just plod along and keep going forward.
What's the best advice for your quest that you've ever received?
This is really hard to answer. I think a lot of it is because I am very much an independent soul. I create new concepts and ideas. I’m also like a dog with a bone. I don’t let it go. It wasn’t that someone gave me advice. The “aha” moment was an internal one. It was something that I came up with. I looked around and knew that a brick and mortar store wouldn’t work for me. What woule? A mobile tea room! So it was that internal advice or voice that helped me on my quest.
Is there a particular quote, a movie, a book or a person that has sustained you?
|Gay and Colleen|
First and foremost is my daughter. She loves the fact that I am doing this and she is proud of her mom and wants me to keep going. Colleen would love for me to have my own tea shop someday. Knowing that she is excited about the fact that I do this has been a great inspiration for me.
It sounds kind of corny but my customers. They get so excited about what I do. They too are so supportive when I talk to them about how I got to where I am with the mobile tea room. They tell me “you’re such an innovator and so creative to have come up with this idea.” It is truly inspirational, too.
There is also a movie. Colleen and I have watched Gwyneth Paltrow in Jane Austen’s Emma over and over. It is a film that truly fills our hearts! For someone who is an anglophile you just fall in love visually with the movie. But it’s also the character Emma who is so powerful for us. Emma’s very strong and very independent and kind of funny. That really encapsulates the kind of women that we want to be. And tea just fits in perfectly with Emma and the Jane Austen English countryside.
Do you have a new quest around the corner?
The new quest around the corner right now—it’s always evolving. For now it is the mobile tea shop. For example, this coming Saturday there will be a sheep shearing and craft event at Gore Place in Waltham, Mass. I will be setting up a tent like your neighborhood tea shop. I will be selling loose leaf teas, teacups and saucers, teapots and cozies. That’s the newest venture.
What is a little farther out and on the horizon is sharing retail space. I would love to share common retail space with one other business that is looking for a little help or whose business marries well with mine. Or, a whole group of people with products that complement each other. That’s still in the thinking stage. I haven’t started my research yet.
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
Last year, I was at the Minute Man and it was a Sunday. This elderly gentleman came by with a very young boy. He told me that his wife had been so taken with me and the truck that he decided to bring his grandson along for a tea party.
|Tea under the tree|
Under this beautiful huge tree close by where I set up, I put out tables and bistro chairs. I brought them tea and scones and they sat there for the longest time. It was one of those breathtakingly gorgeous days. Afterwards he came up to me and said: “I really want to thank you. You made an incredible memory for us.” I started to cry. I was so taken that this Mobile Tea Room can create such memories and beauty for people.
PS. One of Colleen's friends sings a tribute, "Tea Will Rock You," set to the music of a song with a similar name made famous by rock band Queen. Click here to enjoy this very clever tribute that Gay includes on her website!
Some of Gay's family joins her for tea: her parents and brother Eric, her Aunt Doris and cousin Pammy
To learn more about GayGrace Mobile Tea Room, visit her website, where you will find a calendar listing where Gay will be throughout the season and lovely teas to buy! You can also send an email to Gay. All photos here are (c) Chris Tramontozzi of Photos Galore and More. To view more of Chris's photos of the Gay Grace Mobile Tea Room out and about, click here.