AMHERST, N.S. – There’s a little piece of England tucked away on a side street in Amherst.
It’s a very unassuming place - nothing elaborate about it. Once you enter, it doesn’t take long to appreciate the quaint atmosphere and a décor resembling a tiny tea room in a rural English community.
It’s something that hasn’t escaped notice outside Amherst and Nova Scotia, for that matter. The tea room recently gained national attention recently when it was named one of the top 10 spots for afternoon ‘high’ tea by Chatelaine magazine.
It’s the only tea room east of Montreal to receive recognition.
“The way we look at it is it’s great for Amherst,” said Adrian Bradbury, who owns the business with his wife, Eleanor. “It’s great for us, but it’s great for the town. What we want is for the whole town to be improved because if people come here to see us they go elsewhere in the community and we all benefit.”
Adrian is trained baker while Eleanor is Cordon Bleu trained. Neither worked in the restaurant business until they opened Birkinshaw’s Tea Room, Coffee House and Restaurant on Ratchford Street last December.
The restaurant gets its name from Adrian’s grandfather, Cyril Birkinshaw, who was a butler to several aristocratic families in England. It where he developed his love of food.
Afternoon tea was introduced to Britain in the early 1840s as a mini-meal to assuage hunger leading up to the main meal, usually at 8 p.m. It usually includes tea with finger sandwiches, scones, pastries and cakes.
The Bradburys consider their operation a traditional tea room, but with a modern twist. The setting is relaxed and friendly with vintage china and tablecloths complimenting the building’s historic character. The service is impeccable.
There’s also a menu of traditional English food that stirs up memories for customers.
“I’ve had a lot of people say, ‘I haven’t had that since my mom made it when I was a child,’ or they say they remembered it but never had a recipe for it,” Eleanor said. “It’s nice that people have memories like that.”
Receiving the accolade is nice, but it’s not what they went into business for. Ironically, neither Eleanor nor Adrian had any idea a member of the Chatelaine editorial team was in their restaurant.
“They were guests of someone who was here for afternoon tea,” she said. “We had no idea they were here. Then we got a phone call a little later asking if we had any photos we could send and saying they were thrilled and surprised to see we were here in the Maritimes.”
When the Bradburys moved to Amherst in 2010, there really wasn’t a place to enjoy the traditional afternoon tea. Now it’s part of a growing trend across Canada that’s seen an explosion of tea rooms in towns and cities across Canada.
“For me, from the age of seven, having afternoon tea is always something that’s been a fun thing. It had always been a Pinterest folder for me. I called it My Tea Rooms. When Adrian finished his job in Saint John a couple of years ago we started thinking that maybe it’s more than a Pinterest folder,” she said. “We weren’t sure Amherst would be the right place, but this is where we live and this is where the kids were in school. We thought about Moncton and we thought about Sackville, but this is where we are.”
From opening nine months, Birkenshaws has quickly developed a very loyal clientele with customers coming from as far as Moncton, Saint John and Halifax. They are seeing an increasing amount of support from the Amherst area as word spreads through social media and word of mouth.
This has happened despite their location in what was an old warehouse a block from town hall and First Baptist Church.
“This wasn’t our first choice of location, but by the time everything was done we decided this was where we were going to be,” she said. “Since we’ve opened it’s gone very differently from what we expected. It has gone very well. We thought it would be more about people coming in for a cup of coffee or tea and little something else and taking it with them on the run. But it has been much busier than expected. Lunch is busy and afternoon teas have been much busier than we thought.”
The Bradburys have worked very hard at marketing through social media, saying it has benefitted small businesses such as theirs. She also credits Amherst’s marketing and promotions coordinator Rebecca Taylor for recognizing they were offering something different, which is another reason to visit the community.
“We get people from outside the community, places like Saint John, who will ask if there’s anything else to do so we’re directing them to Dayle’s, Mrs. Pugsley’s Emporium or to Deanne Fitzpatrick’s studio,” she said. “We feel it all works together. We working to give people an experience. People are willing to travel to experience something unique, something different and we feel it’s all good for Amherst.”