Sharon Quigley thinks it’s high time to bring back high tea.
While the Boston Tea Party may have garnered all the headlines, Nantucket’s history with tea is equally steeped in tradition. During the heyday of whaling, teas from around the world found their way back to Nantucket aboard ships returning from far off hunts. Women effectively ran the island at that time and local teahouses offered them a rare reprieve from their many responsibilities and a chance to taste exotic teas from abroad. This largely untold history of tea on the island has stirred the imagination of one local woman who is currently brewing a plan to bring teahouses back to their former glory on Nantucket.
“I think I was born in another era,” says Sharon Quigley, who recently won the People’s Choice Award at the Nantucket Chamber of Commerce’s inaugural N.I.C.E. Pitch Competition with her idea for a teahouse. “I’ve always loved the whole theater of afternoon tea with beautiful pastries and delicious finger sandwiches.” Quigley wants to recreate this experience by opening a teahouse in the historic district. Named in honor of one of Nantucket’s most colorful and controversial characters, Kezia Coffin’s Tea Room will be whimsically designed with nods to the colonial and Victorian-era styles, and feature raised white-paneled walls adorned with an array of eclectic items that you could imagine whalers could have brought back on their many journeys. Quigley also envisions a mural honoring notable Nantucket women stretching back through history to the tearoom’s namesake Kezia Coffin, who gained fame and infamy as a British sympathizer that amassed a fortune through smuggling during the Revolutionary War.
Waiters dressed in period costumes will serve tea, cucumber sandwiches, scones, smoked salmon, cheese, along with a variety of delicate, handcrafted pastries that hark back to simpler and slower times. “I want to hire actors over traditional servers,” she says. “I want them to pick a historical character, learn about their history and develop a persona so they can create an immersive, entertaining and historical experience.” Entering the evening hours, the tea room will be less buttoned-up, with jazz playing, cocktails served and the wait staff wearing “Steampunk-inspired” costumes. Along with serving everyday diners and tourists for a leisurely lunch, Quigley envisions the tea room hosting bridal showers, birthdays and even bachelorette parties. “It’s not just a restaurant,” she says. “It’s entertainment.”
Quigley first became enchanted with Nantucket as a little girl vacationing on the island with her family in the ’60s. More than the beaches or sailboats, she fell in love with the quaint charm of the island’s historic downtown. “I remember going to the old Sweet Shop on Main Street and loving all the candies and fine pastries,” she says. “I have had a dream of having a tea room on the island since I was a teenager dining at the Mad Hatter, staring at the beautiful porch of the hotel where I now work.” After decades of coming to Nantucket as a vacationer, she fulfilled her dream of moving full time to the island three years ago when she took a job as the department head of the concierge team at The Nantucket Hotel and Resort. “As Nantucket is getting a little more upscale, I’m trying to bring back those nostalgic, quaint elements of our island that differentiate us from other beach destinations like the Hamptons,” she says.
While Quigley’s idea for the tea room might seem out of a fairytale, she’s taking serious steps to making it a reality. “This past February, I went to London and hired a tea expert to train me in all aspects of the history of afternoon tea, the baking techniques for classic tea fare, the ceremony of traditional afternoon tea,” she says. “We traveled all over London analyzing various tea services and approaches to tea.”
Upon returning to Nantucket, she started pulling together idea boards and developing a business plan with the help of Karen Macumber at the newly-founded Nantucket Island Center for Entrepreneurship (N.I.C.E.), which was founded in a partnership between the Chamber of Commerce and ReMain Nantucket.
“To create a successful new business, it takes unwavering passion, combined with a great idea that fulfills an unmet consumer need—Sharon has both,” Macumber says. “In our work together at the Center for Entrepreneurship she has shown she has the determination, ingenuity and business background necessary to make the tea room a big hit and a sustainable downtown business.”
Last October, Quigley went public with her idea at the inaugural N.I.C.E. Pitch Competition, a Shark Tank-style event that offered cash prizes to local entrepreneurs. “It was the most terrifying and thrilling experience,” she says of the pitch competition held at The Dreamland where the three judges included local entrepreneur Darya Gault, entrepreneur and journalist Peter Barnes, and N Magazine publisher Bruce A. Percelay. Although Quigley came in second in the overall competition—earning an over-sized check for $3,000—she won the People’s Choice Award voted on by the many members of the public in attendance. “That was even more gratifying than the cash prize,” she says. “To have the community say, ‘Yes, we think this would be a good idea’ was the biggest compliment and gave me a lot of confidence and hope.” Quigley is currently seeking investors and a location within Nantucket’s historic district where she can continue to pour her passion into Kezia Coffin’s Tea Room.