Well, last week, America’s oldest operating tea house - the Wenham Tea House - announced Crocker and Oraibi would take over management of the local icon. That future looks like it will begin in spring, 2021.
First things first. Many will be relieved to know that The Black Arrow on Central Street will continue being operated by Crocker and Oraibi.
“That’s definitely the plan, as much as you can make one these days,” laughed Crocker. “But we’ve gotten great feedback from friends and customers about the news on the Teahouse. And we’re excited.”
Crocker’s career as a chef-restauranteur is long, first as owner of The Wild Horse in Beverly for nearly 15 years. Then, with The Old Spot in Salem for eight years. Four years ago, he opened Black Arrow here in Manchester, where he grew up. All of these successes have been with Oraibi as partner. Black Arrow enjoys intense loyalty from customers (and staff), drawn to Crocker’s unrestrained dishes that are familiar but very creative. The cheeseburger on the dinner menu, for instance, is described as an “all-beef patty, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions, on a sesame seed bun.” (Queue the chuckle). The incredible simple, and delicous roast chicken. Then, many dishes veered to the Far East. All of them, however, are signature of Crocker’s approach to cooking. The Black Arrow was, and is, a food-forward eatery. No offense to the bar.
When COVID hit, Crocker closed Black Arrow for four months. He thought about the future with a pandemic. He adjusted, and planned. By April, he reorganized the empty bar area of Black Arrow to accommodate prepping and packaging delicious meals for another purpose: feeding frontline workers. He and local organizers made and distributed thousands of free meals. At the time, Crocker said it just felt good to cook for those in need. He didn’t care who it was as much as it would make a difference. In July, Black Arrow reopened as a COVID-adjusted restaurant, adjusting to late mornings and lunch service, stressing “provisions” and offering an early dinner service for customers who wanted to eat before closing time, 8 p.m., sharp.
Back to the Wenham Tea House. It was opened in 1910 by the Wenham Village Improvement Society (WVIS for short), a small philanthropic group to offer "a women's exchange … for local homeworker goods and a cozy place for the townspeople to gather." Generations of customers came to love the place, especially the team of (mostly) women who steadfastly ran the diminutive, local, historic shop and restaurant. It wasn’t unusual to meet a cashier who had worked at there for 40 or 50 years. Its retail shop seemed to specialize in “all things charming.” And of course, there was afternoon tea service, or lunches (first or second seating). And breakfast and brunch. Never dinner. It was—and remains—a local institution.
So, in late June, a twist. It started with a long, rather dramatic, and highly misleading Facebook post by the restaurant’s operator. “Challenges with product, staffing, and finances due to the pandemic has really put pressure that I cannot handle anymore." In another post, he called the closing, "The end of an era." Nevermind that he had a lease to operate, and did not own the Wenham Teahouse. The post prompted a massive wave of reactions on social media, not to mention the news stories. Boston.com’s headline read, “Historic North Shore Destination Has Closed.” NBC ran its story, “Century Old Wenham Tea House Shuts Down.” Yahoo News went with, “Wenham Tea House Is Latest Business To Fall Victim to Coronavirus.” A closer look told the true story. The operator was leaving. He had decided to run for State Representative. (In November, he lost his bid for the seat.)
This prompted Brenden and Milissa to reach out to the WVIS. Over the previous two years, the couple, who now live in Hamilton, would drive past the tea house and thought it just might be the right vessel to hold the future they envisioned. That future with more control, less late nights, more time. They had even approached the WVIS, but nothing ever geled.
But in August, it felt different. It felt like things were aligning, and might gel.
“We thought it was not too good to be true, but too good to pass up,” said Crocker.
According to Brenden and Milissa, their vision for the Wenham Tea House includes an outstanding brunch, and lunch. But there will also be a creative twist, with added prepared foods for quick-and-easy take home meals, and catering. Brenden’s love of bakery items will factor strongly into the mix. The retail shop will focus on local artisans and small gift wares. Brenden and Milissa will also offer a modern version of the classic English tea service that has been an institution at the Wenham Tea House.
Despite the details, Crocker said he’s learned to not plan too much. He wants to start with an overall idea, and get to work. Feel it out, and then, based on how it’s going, adjust. And that feels just about right for him, and Milissa, right now.