The vibe at Alice’s Tea Cup, the whimsical teahouse on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, was a busy mellow on a recent Sunday afternoon. People stood around, casually waiting to be seated, while the restaurant’s outdoor tables — overflowing with fancy teapots and three-tiered trays full of scones, salmon and cucumber sandwiches, cookies and slices of chocolate layer cake — bustled with customers.
“Being together like this is a treat,” said Alene Frankel, 53, who had organized a family reunion in the outside space that day. “This is a warm place to get together. Everyone knows about it.”
The restaurant’s co-owners, Lauren and Haley Fox, sat nearby. The sisters, who grew up in the neighborhood, opened Alice’s on a whim in 2001, with the hope that the restaurant would add stability in their lives. And it did, for 20 years.
“We were in the middle of building the interior when Sept. 11 happened,” said Lauren Fox, 51. “When people sat down for a pot of tea and a scone they felt safe, comforted and normal,” she continued. “There are no windows inside, so it’s a real rabbit’s hole feeling, like you’re hidden from everything. People really responded to that, and to us.”
But these days, the Fox sisters, feeling the brunt of the pandemic, have made the emotionally difficult decision that it may be time to sell the family business.
Their flagship restaurant, on West 73rd Street, was modeled after Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland,” and was intended to serve only afternoon tea. Demand for brunch came quickly. So did breakfast and lunch, followed by requests for scones to go. The sisters obliged.
They also opened two more locations — on the Upper East Side and in Brooklyn Heights — and Alice’s became a destination for both New Yorkers and tourists, including celebrities. Madonna, Julia Roberts, Conan O’Brien, Katie Holmes, John Oliver, Bernadette Peters, among others, stopped by.
“Alice’s Tea Cup has been my favorite place for as long as I can remember,” wrote the comedian Amy Schumer in an email. “The staff has always been incredibly inclusive and diverse. Nice when your favorite spot aligns with your belief system and values.”
But Alice’s Tea Cup has had a difficult time over the past 18 months. The teahouses’ cozy indoor spaces have been harder to embrace amid the threat of an airborne virus, and distancing may dilute their charm. Tiered trays of treats and teapots do not always work well on some of the smaller outdoor tables.
“We are a destination spot for family gatherings, friends connecting, kids having tea with their parents, and birthday, baby and bridal parties. Those things can’t be transferred,” said Haley Fox, 47. “During Covid the word ‘pivot’ was used a lot. People kept saying, ‘We will pivot to a delivery business or make the front a grocery store.’ There’s no pivoting for us. This is a niche business.”
In other words, tea on the sidewalk is doable, but not ideal. And when a good share of your customers are children under 12 who haven’t been vaccinated, demand is high for that limited outdoor space.
In May 2020, the Fox sisters applied for aid from the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, a federal program. A month later, they received an $800,000 grant for each of their Manhattan locations. Without them, they say, Alice’s would have folded within the year.
But money couldn’t fix the challenges that followed: forced lockdowns; frequent regulation changes; trial-by-error construction of the outdoor spaces; poor weather; and the loss of employees.
“We invest in a younger generation and hire based on personality, diversity and inclusivity,” said Lauren Fox. “Most of our staff were not from here and during lockdown went back home to their families. We lost almost everyone.”
That meant going from 70 staff members to 15. Several servers per shift became only one with truncated hours.
And then there were the safety issues. “Parents with young children are concerned. They want to sit outside,” Lauren Fox said. “They get mad when seating isn’t available because everyone who is booking parties wants to sit outside or needs to because one person in their party isn’t vaccinated. So indoor seating isn’t an option. We take the rules and mask requirements seriously.”
For all these reasons, the Fox sisters, feeling burned out, have decided to look for investors to keep the business going or perhaps, for new owners.
“We are having a hard time keeping up with demand,” said Haley Fox. “We are sitting on something that needs expansion and the right people who understand our vision and know how to do that. We don’t. We can no longer grow it or help it thrive.”
And so a new reality and realization have materialized; the duo are ready to step down and pass the baton, ideally to someone who will keep their vision alive.
“I will be devastated if this magical, uniquely New York place closes,” said Blake Ross, 31, who recently brought her daughter Tess, 3, to Alice’s for the first time. Tess was channeling her inner Elsa from the movie “Frozen,” wearing a light blue princess dress and matching wings and carrying a sparkly wand. “I knew when my daughter was old enough to understand this experience that we would come here. It will be a real hardship for the neighborhood if this iconic place is gone.”
The actor Raúl Esparza discovered Alice’s when he was rehearsing for a Broadway show in 2007. “I would grab scones and their teas in the morning and take them back to the dressing room,” he said. “Alice’s represents the essence of the New York I fell in love with,” he continued. “I’m not sure how many little corners of wonderful the city has left. It will be very sad if they close. Alice’s became a little home for me.”
The Fox sisters can relate.
“So much of Alice is wrapped up in our identity,” Haley Fox said. “Our hearts are on every wall. It’s all we’ve known and done for two decades.”