High Time for High Tea

Owner Linda Pukenas (center) and full-time employees Kieri Cross (left) and Lesley Ann Bennett (right) run the Southport Tea House Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.  Photo by Bethany Turner

Owner Linda Pukenas (center) and full-time employees Kieri Cross (left) and Lesley Ann Bennett (right) run the Southport Tea House Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Photo by Bethany Turner

Residents may be familiar with the quaint cottage at 611 N. Howe St. in Southport. For a couple months this summer, it housed a tea room by the name of British Isles Flavours and Styles. With various flags from across the pond flying high along the front porch, the business was run by Peter Krykant, a Scotland native, and Catherine Lido.

“I was driving down the road one day, and I saw something was coming in here, and I thought it was such a cute cottage,” Linda Pukenas, owner of the Robert Ruark Inn and Southport Tours with her husband, Rick, recalls. “Then rumblings around town were that it was going to be a tea house. I was so excited. My sister and I often go to tea houses together, especially the one in Wake Forest where I used to live. We came in and were like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is so wonderful.’ We sat at the little black table in the window. They were so nice and it was just so enjoyable. I was really happy and couldn’t wait to come back with friends. And then all of a sudden, I heard they were closing.”

When Krykant was denied a visa, the couple were forced to sell the company which had already garnered such attention as a new, unique offering in the area. Pukenas, saddened by the closing of the tea house, saw a opportunity knocking at her door.

“I call my husband and go, ‘Rick, guess what? There’s a tea house for sale,'” Pukenas muses. “I know Rick was like, ‘Oh no…'”

Yet with the full-time business of the inn, and the very busy summer rush of Southport Tours, Pukenas asked herself if purchasing the tea house would be a wise decision. “I’d even decided, no I’m not going to move forward with it,” she begins. “And Rick comes to me with these famous words—they get me in trouble every time—he said, ‘Well, why not?'”

With her husband by her side, Pukenas purchased all of Krykant’s equipment and leased the space, renaming it the Southport Tea House. “We had a great foundation. We’ve been fortunate that we have really good people helping us,” Pukenas says. “It was unfortunate for them that he had to leave, but I’m grateful that he got in here and had the vision to start a tea house. He had some good ideas.”

As a husband-and-wife team, the duo worked hard to update their new space into their own shabby-chic style. The furniture is a hodge podge of antiques, including a whimsical library catalog to harbor the teas, while floral linens and lace don the tables. A few coats of paint revealed a warmer, welcoming feel.

But the opening of Southport Tea House didn’t come with smooth sailing. The refrigerator purchased with the package fritzed, and Pukenas had to invest in a new model. New outlets had to be installed to boil water hotter. Then, some of the employees they had during the summer returned to college. For three weeks in November, the Pukenases even had to close Southport Tea House because of a vacation that was planned before the business ever became an idea. Our interview took place just before the trip.

“I really thought about canceling it, but I couldn’t, because with the inn we haven’t gotten away for two years,” Pukenas admits. “And I also feel that going to Europe is doing research. I’ll be hitting every tea shop I can. We’re going down from Amsterdam to Budapest, so we’re hitting 14 stops along the way. This is the first time we’ve ever crossed over the pond. I owe it to Rick because he’s been very supportive with the tea house. He’s my husband, so this might sound biased, but he’s one of the hardest workers, and he’s so committed to giving everyone a good experience.”

While balancing the three very different companies has been a challenge, the Pukenases persevere. “It’s been OK because Rick and I work very well together,” Pukenas shares. “Now we’re where we need to be. I have two people who are here full-time. One of them is Lesley Bennett. She’s a wonderful lady and she’s of English descent. She lived in England, and she’s just a sweetheart. The other one is Kieri Cross. She’s a young girl and she’s very into the whole tea thing.”

The Southport Tea House doesn’t focus solely on English teas; rather the selection includes a variety of organic and herbal teas, too. “I think there’s great value even from an educational standpoint of what tea does for people,” Pukenas reveals. “Tea can awaken you in the morning; it can help you when you’re getting a cold; it can help you go to sleep at night. You can drink tea because you want to enjoy the experience, you can drink tea because it’s healthy, or you can just drink tea because it’s fun.”

This antique tea cart, turned into a table for two, is where Linda Pukenas' love story with the Southport Tea House began. Photo by Bethany Turner

This antique tea cart, turned into a table for two, is where Linda Pukenas’ love story with the Southport Tea House began. Photo by Bethany Turner

The offerings even feature three to four iced teas daily. On the day I visited, ginger peach and harvest orange spice were part of the iced selections. Yet any tea can be ordered hot or cold.

“We have loose teas out in jars so people can smell them, like rose or harvest blend. We sell it by the ounce. For December, we’ll have the holiday spice blend as the tea of the month, and it will be on sale.”

In November, Pukenas already had over 30 tea options. Folks can expect the tea house to begin offering tea tastings, as well. “Even though the favorites are represented, I’m adding a lot more herbal teas because people want caffeine-free, and there are dessert teas like ‘champagne and berries,'” she says.

Though Pukenas already had a lifelong love for tea, she’s doing everything possible to learn more about the industry. “Kimberly Bandera of Howe Outrageous and I did a roadtrip to Atlanta for the tea show,” she tells. “We got a number of teas and teaware. We have a lot of inventory coming in for the Christmas season.”

Shoppers can find pots and other items, as well as gourmet foods for sale. As the tea house attracts global visitors—such as guests from England, Italy, and the Czech Republic—Pukenas brings in more specialty items like clotted cream and Branston Pickle.

Sandwiches, salads and scones—all made in-house—are offered as part of reasonably priced “high teas” ($21.50 for two), though they’re available any time of day. Like the tea flavors, the range of scones available exceeds the norm. Some of Pukenas’ favorite offerings thus far include pumpkin and lavender white chocolate.

Pukenas recognizes there are differences in expectations from Americans and Europeans. “I want this to be the place that, whether people are from this side of the pond or the other side of the pond, I want them to have the tea that they’re used to,” she asserts.

Most importantly, Southport Tea House has given Pukenas the opportunity to share something special with her community. “I think a tea room is a great thing for Southport because—I think we all would agree—Southport is a very special place. It’s coastal; it’s small-town; it’s warm and cozy. A tea house is warm and cozy,” she reasons.

“We didn’t open the tea house just for tourists; we opened it for the people who live here, too. Rick and I have enjoyed every second of owning the Robert Ruark Inn—we love it. And we feel very blessed for the people who have been in our lives, the people who have helped us, all of our neighbors, other businesses. So opening this was like an extension for us. We don’t get to host the people who live in the community at the inn so much. We have wonderful guests, but here we can have guests from outside and we can also have local people. We can have a place for them that we feel has the charm of Southport, and that we can deliver what we think is important. I think that’s why I wanted the tea house.”

The Southport Tea House is open Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Reservations are not necessary but are encouraged for groups of six or more. For more information, call (910) 833-0227 or visit www.southportteahouse.com.

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Southport Area's Culture & Events Magazine