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Cederberg Tea House

Seattle's South African gathering spot

Success should always be celebrated, but success on a first-time-out venture is even more impressive. For Cecile Robson and daughter Natasha Robson-Lovato, Cederberg Tea House was a spur-of-the-moment idea they have turned into a solid business.

Cecile worked for British Airways in South Africa and Phoenix. She has lived in the U.S. for 21 years, eight of those in Washington. Natasha went to college to become a teacher and did her internship in England on an American military base. When she graduated, she told her parents she was not returning to Phoenix, she was going to Seattle. A week after graduation, she had a teaching job on Mercer Island. Her brother and parents also moved.

When Natasha and Jason married, Natasha wanted to have high tea. Unable to find things they needed, they purchased cups and plates. Afterwards, they had everything to do parties and decided to start catering. "Once we started, we realized how difficult it was," recalls Cecile. "We had to cart all these cups and plates to places. We had to rent a commercial kitchen and transport the food. After 8-10 months, we decided it wasn't worth it. Two years ago while I was in South Africa, Natasha called and told me she'd resigned from her teaching job and that we were going to start a tea shop! If she hadn't quit, we probably would never have done it." They realized they needed Jason to run the business as well and brought him in, then found a real estate agent who didn't give up until he'd found the right place. They felt the Queen Anne location had potential and opened Cederberg in June 2013.

Jason, Natasha, Cecile

"In South Africa, coffee shops are places to visit with people, not work," explains Cecile. "We wanted a casual but nice place. People order at the counter, we deliver to their tables, chat, and go back to check on them. We wanted a friendly, interactive atmosphere." They play South African music at quiet levels. Coffee/espresso is available, but their claim to fame is Rooibos tea which can be served plain or used in any espresso-type drink. "A South African farmer realized he was drinking far too much caffeine, so he took Rooibos leaves and ground them down to put through an espresso machine. This was in 2005. Rooibos is naturally decaffeinated and has five times more antioxidants than green tea. It's popular in Africa, parts of Europe and Canada, but not known well here. We're one of the only places you can get it locally."

Food items include pastries, quiche, sandwiches, curry in a bread bowl, sausage rolls, tarts, scones. "These are all items that we'd take to parties or have at home in South Africa. These are family recipes. Natasha loves to bake and she tweaks our recipes until she feels they are right. At one point, she had nine different custard tarts in the refrigerator! South African teas are less formal than British-they sit at a table, we sit around the living room." They keep their menu small and seasonal to be manageable, adding specials now and then like hot cross buns or pumpkin cakes. Baking takes place all day long, helping in two ways. First, the shop always smells delicious. Second, it keeps items fresh and they don't run out. "South Africans come from distances, even Olympia and Bellingham. They'll often arrive in the afternoon and are so disappointed if we've sold out of things. Baking all day ensures they'll find what they want. Plus they like to take things home. If they call in advance, we'll have items ready for them. We've been involved in the South African club here and thought we knew most of the 250 families. Since opening, we've realized how many more South Africans live here. Once they find us, they bring other South Africans in. Or Americans will bring their South African friends in or buy gift vouchers for them. Weekends are very busy; we've become a destination place."

Sausage rolls courtesy of Cederberg Tea House

They still cater, although it's much easier now that they have their own commercial kitchen. Although they prefer to cater using food items from their menu, they provide what people want. Onsite, they offer tea parties. With a 48 hour notice, they provide a linen-draped table with china plates and cups, tea and 13 South African food items. Tea parties can be for 2-25 people.

The number of South Africans coming in has changed their business plan somewhat. They intended to be on site sometimes, and hire employees to run the daily operation. Now they've found that either Cecile or Natasha need to be onsite all the time. "People long for a touch of home and they want to speak Afrikaans," says Natasha. "A lady came in the other day and asked if I spoke it and I answered in Afrikaans. Her face just lit up."

In June, they will have had the shop for two years. They've worked out the details of who does what, and work together all day without stepping on anyone's toes. "We still make decisions together," says Cecile. Natasha agrees and says "I still go to my mom for advice and she's the one who has ensured we're financially sound. Jason is the positive "it will all be alright" person, I analyze everything and mom has kept us out of debt. A few times a month, we have to talk her off the ledge. Overall, I've learned to be patient and not stress about the small things."

Tea party table courtesy of Cederberg Tea House

While they agree it's been hard work, they now have a lot of repeat customers, have met many new people and introduced many South Africans to each other. "We love it." And for those who come often, they try to have some new food item to remind them of home. So come often.

Cederberg Tea House
1417 Queen Anne Ave N
Seattle, WA 98109

Connie Adams/March 2015

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