To A Tea: Sassafras Tea Room a perfect fit for Cheryl Domi
Using All Her Talents: Running restaurant brings out the best in owner
Story by Amy May
Photos by Mark Freeland
Southside Business Exchange: A Daily Journal Publication
December 2014, Volume 12, Number 12
Cheryl Domi almost became a home economics teacher. She actually began her college education at Ball State University taking education courses, before switching to interior design.
Domi, who has spent much of her adult life as an independent businesswoman, realized teaching would not be for her.
“I didn’t like getting in front of a group,” she said. “Now, I do it all the time.”
Her parents ran businesses when Domi was a child. She remembers during the merchandise at her family’s furniture store, answering the phones at their funeral home and helping customers at her grandparents’ dime store in southern Indiana. After college, she started her own window coverings business on the northside of Indianapolis, Windows Interiors By Cheryl, which she owned and operated for 12 years.
She then worked with a friend, Karin Glass, for a few years, helping her start three tearooms, Serenity in Zionsville, Serendipity in Carmel and Signature in downtown Indianapolis. Her friend had also planned to open the Sassafras Tea Room in Greenwood.
“I was still working for Karin and she was trying to set it up down her. I bought it from her,” Domi said. “It just kind of fell in my lap. I worked for her for four years, then I took this over.”
Although a seamstress by trade, Domi felt confident she had learned what she needed to know about running a tea room.
All her talents are put to use in the restaurant, she said.
“I had worked in restaurants before. The draperies business was interior design. I also use that here to create a festive, yet homey feel. This is pretty much everything I’ve had and done over the years all put together,” she said.
The Sassafras Tea Room opened January 2010 in Old Town Greenwood.
The business is in a late-1800s Georgian home that was once the home of Dr. Sheek, the town doctor. Unlike many historic homes repurposed into businesses, this home was intentionally left looking like a house.
The hardwood floors are covered with Oriental rugs and an eclectic, yet harmonious arrangement of old-fashioned tables and chairs and place settings. No two tables are identical, which was intended, Domi said.
She gets the tables and place settings from “all over,” including family and friends and thrift shops. The effect is like being at a get-together in a family home, where the dishes, tablecloths and chairs don’t necessarily match.
“It’s like being in Grandma’s house,” Domi said.
The signature offering is the afternoon tea, which is offered Monday through Saturday, 2:30 to 4 p.m.
Afternoon tea is a British tradition said to have been introduced by Anna, the seventh Duchess of Bedford, in 1840. Dinner in upper-class society was served fashionably late, so when people become hungry in the afternoon, they had a long time to wait to eat. Anna would ask for a tray of tea and bread and butter to be brought to her room around 4 in the afternoon. She began inviting friends to join her for the afternoon snack. Soon it became a fashionable event, with ladies dressing up in gowns, gloves and hats for light refreshments and conversation in the drawing rooms of upper-class homes. The British still have tea and a snack in the late afternoon, although much of the ceremony and ritual is gone, with Brits more likely to have a quick mug of tea and a biscuit at 4 pm.m., according to HistoricUK.com.
The more formal version of the tradition crossed the ocean, however, and afternoon tea is offered in upscale hotels and restaurants across the country, including the former L.S. Ayres Tea Room in Indianapolis.
Sassafras Tea Room’s deluxe tea package is called “The Duchess Tea.” It includes three varieties of teas, four types of finger sandwiches (chicken salad, cucumber, etc.), and a tower of sweet treats, such as brownies, eclairs, scones, cream puffs, lemon bars, etc.
A “petite” version of the tea, “The Princess Tea,” is also available. For little girls, it includes a craft and makes an ideal children’s bnirthday party, Domi said.
Domi said many of her customers who come for afternoon tea are in a party. It’s often a setting for wedding showers, baby showers, birthday parties, anniversary parties. Organized groups, such as members of the local Red Hat Society, residents from area senior citizen homes or a church women’s group, also enjoying coming for tea. For celbrations, Sassafras can make personalized, decorated cakes.
“We try to make it a special environment and for the whole experience to be unique and memorable for them,” Domi said. “We cover the whole gamut. We’ve done everything but a divorce party.”
Sassafras has a lunch men, as well. Sandwiches, salads and soups are offered, including the iconic Chicken Velvet Soup from the L.S. Ayres Tea Room. Lunch ius served before tea time and includes more substantial fare.
All the food and treats are homemade. Domi can make gluten-free foods, as well, and is willing to tweak recipes to accommodate a customer’s allergies.
Many people learn about her restaturant on the Internet and it becomes a destination for some, bringing people from all over the state. Domi said she’s had customers hail from as far away as Austyralia. They were staying in a hotel in Indianapolis and decided to make the trip south for afternoon tea.
And tea is not just for the ladies. Domi said they get men in there, either as part of a family group or on their own for lunch.
We’re not a typical tea room. A lot of times, men don’t want to go to a tea room, but even the men don’t leave here hungry,” she said.
After opening, Domi expanded the restaturant to the upstairs of the home, raising hte capacity to approximately 50.
She recently added offsite catering, offering her signature foods and teas at events, such as wedding receptions or small office parties. She has also fofered dinner for special occasion groups at the restuatruatn, but is not open to the punblic for dinner.
The holiday season is especially busy, with so many groups looking for a fun and unique activity. She is offering “Tea with Mrs. Claus” this year on Dec. 13-14.
Her downtime, she said is in January and February.
“Come winter, I’ve got to think outside the box a little,” she said.
The restaurant also offers a variety of retail items, including sampler packages of teas that are served there and acrts and crafts from local artisans. The walls are decorated with works from Southside Art League members and are for sale, as well.
As she grows and expands her offerings, Domi is experiencing a problem, although it’s a good one to have, she said. She has outgrown her kitchen; she especially needs a bigger and better refirgerator.
Plans to expand
So Domi plans to expand the kitchen into the neighboring room, originally the home’s dining room. Right now, the room has guest tables, but people don’t like to sit so close to the kitchen anyway, she said. Most prefer the home’s front room with its cozy fireplace and view of Madison Avenue.
Domi said it would be difficult for her to work for someone else at this point in her life, although running her own business does have its negatives, most of which she knew to expect, such as dealing with a no-show employee or the thigh cost of new equipment.
“Expect that you’re going to work long hours,” she said. “It’d be nice to have a consistent paycheck, too. But I’ve been on my own for so long, so I am loving this.”