Alice’s Tea Cup Closes for Now, Because Outdoor Service Can’t Pay the Bills

By Amelia Roth-Dishy

Facing colder temperatures and a dearth of federal assistance, beloved local restaurant Alice’s Tea Cup has decided to close indefinitely. Sunday marked the last tea service, for now. They already had ended indoor dining at the Upper West Side location— two days before Cuomo announced the citywide shutdown— due to concerns about insufficient ventilation.

“We really can’t survive on six tables outside,” said Lauren Fox, who co-founded the tea house with her sister Hailey.

Alice’s Tea Cup is a whimsical place, even with no customers inside. At their original location on West 73rd Street, fairy lights twinkle outside their signature purple awning. Lauren and Hailey have received investment offers over the years to expand their unique brand, but they always resisted. “At this point, it’s ended up biting us in the ass, but we don’t regret it,” Lauren said. But right now, they wouldn’t turn down some support.

Like so many businesses, Alice’s temporarily closed their restaurants— they have another location on East 64th Street— back in mid-March. They reopened in the first week of July, building outdoor seating barricades out of shipping pallets turned on their sides. But even with loyal customers, they’re struggling to pay their bills. They received some stimulus from the first round of PPP, but that’s now long gone. And mounting COVID-19 cases in the city exacerbate anxieties about putting their employees, who commute from all over the city via public transportation, in harm’s way.

“Every day we stay open is another day my sister and I worry about the staff,” Lauren said. But the implications of prioritizing safety have weighed heavily on their minds. “That’s actually the hardest part for us and the reason we stayed open for as long as we did,” she said. “We have made it very clear… to our staff that’s here and been with us through the pandemic, they’re going to be the first to come back.”

As the weather gets cooler, it’s also becoming increasingly difficult, practically and financially, to both satisfy the city’s outdoor seating requirements and keep customers comfortable. Even on the unseasonably warm 60° Sunday, people were asking for heaters.

“We’re in an old building, so we can’t plug more than two heaters in without blowing the fuse,” Lauren said. “And the fact that we have to have two of the four sides of the barricades open… I don’t know how anybody is going to stay within regulation with what they’re asking for outdoor dining in this weather.”

Looking towards the future, Lauren is hopeful that Alice’s Tea Cup can reopen for in-person dining. “We’re a niche business,” she mused. “We do a very specific thing that isn’t offered everywhere.”

They also say they’re lucky to have a generous landlord. “His compassion and understanding might be the thing that allows us to reopen,” she said. Even so, Lauren doubts they’ll be able to sustain business until it’s warm enough to seat people outside again.

This perfect storm of pandemic conditions— financial insolvency, cold temperatures, outdoor dining restrictions, and mitigating risk for employees and customers— may well cripple other restaurants in the neighborhood, forcing them to temporarily close once again. Nobody Told Me, a craft cocktail bar on 106th Street between Amsterdam and Columbus Avenue, announced on Sunday on Instagram that they’ve decided to “press pause” on the restaurant for the winter, encouraging customers to “stay tuned for sneak peeks of the upcoming spring menu and reopening updates.”

In the meantime, patrons looking to help keep Alice’s Tea Cup afloat have a couple of options. “They can order teas online, and be patient,” Lauren said with a laugh. She has been single handedly filling those orders, wrestling with USPS to get high-demand shipping supplies in a timely manner. Alice’s also offers gift certificates, to use when they reopen. Finally, their to-go bakery operation in Brooklyn is still taking orders for specialty cakes.

“Or if there’s somebody who wants to invest, become a partner,” Lauren added, “if there’s somebody who loves it enough to join us…”

Overall, it was a bittersweet weekend for the store. They had sent out a newsletter inviting people to come and say goodbye. “Yesterday and today,” Lauren said, “we had a line down the block for scones and tea to go. We’re on a two hour wait right now for a table.”

Still— there were only six tables.

FOOD, NEWS | 13 comments | permalink
    1. babrarus says:

      Another one bites the dust.
      Gonna miss it.
      Was unique and classy.
      Good bye to NYC as we knew it.

      • Amy Shapiro says:

        LOL what? A vaccine is coming. Chill out.

        • Johnny says:

          Uh, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle. A vaccine is coming in the medium term, but in the short term, Places are biting the dust left and right and closure of indoor dining will not help them survive. I’m not weighing in on that decision, just stating facts.

        • Ken says:

          yeah, as my rapidly-dying father once said, while waiting impatiently for pain medicine, ‘Christmas is coming, too.” so, now, Christmas is actually coming quite soon, but the vaccine? don’t hold your breath. and neither can this restaurant.

        • Will says:

          I don’t think you understand how long the effects of this pandemic will have on this country especially New York City.

    2. Nevada Rancher says:

      hope to see them open again soon; sad but true reality of this winter. thankfully they are not done yet.

      We need rent relief now!!!

    3. Lizzie says:

      I wish we were expecting another winter like last year: mild and snow-free. But it doesn’t look that way. I really hope our restaurants can hang on until spring.

    4. AUserName says:

      These women, their staff, customers and landlord are so inspiring in the face of tough circumstances. Such a beautiful portrayal of compassionate resilience. Off to order some tea that I’ll be pleased to receive whenever it comes 🙂

    5. Marci says:

      Amy Shapiro. I don’t think you would LOL if this was your business and lifeline. A vaccine isn’t here yet, and they’ve been struggling with the last 9 months, as has every restaurant in this city. Everyone in the restaurant world is barely surviving, so I don’t think chilling out is an option for them.

      • babrarus says:

        Thank you Marci for your comment.
        I do hope that Amy, and others who belittle this curse will realize that chilling out in the face of the pandemic is not quite the answer.
        Cheers all for the holidays.

    6. Julie says:

      I didn’t understand why it took them so long to reopen… I was always passing by in May and June, and would have definitely gotten tea & scones to go. Could have done a very reduced menu with reduced staff (scones are very simple to make after all). Too bad!

      • SmartGuy says:

        Phase two didn’t start until June 22 in NYC, so they weren’t allowed to be open for outdoor dining until then.

        They probably don’t have much of a to go business, so it probably wasn’t worth it for them.

    7. UWS Safe Street Advocate says:

      Car drivers must be happy to get the parking spaces back that Alice’s Tea Cup may be giving up since it doesn’t have to do outdoor dining anymore.