Five days a week, the indefatigable restaurateur whose name customers often shorten to Sue, or Ms. Sue, comes downstairs.
Suhair "Sue" Lauck, owner/operator of the Little Tea Shop, is a Memphis institution, much like her popular Downtown lunch destination. The 95-year-old restaurant was bought by Lauck's late husband 31 years ago. The restaurant is only open for lunch. (Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)
Chad Bowman, left, and Ernest Strickland prepare to order lunch at the Little Tea Shop. (Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)
The Little Tea Shop's chef salad with char-grilled chicken. (Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)
Five days a week, she makes the usual preparations, the kitchen on the floor below where she lives clangs to life, a door is unlocked, and the Little Tea Shop waits for first-timers and hungry regulars to make their way inside, past a large sign out front that greets passers-by with a photo of owner Suhair Lauck.
In the photo she’s smiling, and the sign reads, “I’m waiting for you.”
It’s another day in the life of a symbol of the country’s entrepreneurial heartbeat; that symbol being the small-business owner. This particular proprietor is the heart and soul of a 95-year-old Downtown Memphis institution that her late husband bought 31 years ago.
The summer heat is a particular nuisance today. Inside, an oscillating fan whirs to the left of the front counter where Lauck greets entrants from her familiar spot, wearing her familiar uniform – a ball cap, an apron tied around her waist and a smile.
There’s a predictable ebb and flow to life inside the eatery. At any given moment, Lauck is a force in motion even when standing still. She greets customers and directs them to tables. She disappears at times into the kitchen.
Lauck wipes tables, flits from diner to diner, pausing to add unseen sums in her head.
“You stay as long as you want. Why are you running off?” Lauck coos to one guest making their way up front to pay.
To another, she promotes her beloved Downtown: “You need to come back on Saturdays,” she says, as they pay for their meal at the cash register. “We have a farmers market at the train station. It is absolutely, positively breathtaking. The flowers, the honey, the vegetables. Yes, I’ll be there Saturday.”
Today is payday. Employees with questions or something to say approach Lauck with a kind of tentative, respectful hesitancy.
All at once, it seems, the lunch rush is upon her and the staff. The Tea Shop is open from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., just for lunch, five days a week, a total of 15 hours a week.
The diners are here for what draws them every day – the old-fashioned cooking, with a side dish of Southern hospitality. Today’s menu includes turnip greens, fried catfish filet and chicken smothered with gravy.
The basket of cornbread sticks is a staple that doesn’t change, even though each day’s menu does.
Eventually, nearly every seat in the house is taken. Regulars include judges, lawyers and bankers, plus tourists and members of the general public.
They push open a front door festooned with posters, including one from Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr.’s previous political campaigns on which he’s scrawled: “To Sue, thanks for believing in me. March 2002.”
A customer from a table near the front register calls out to Lauck, appearing to have some degree of familiarity with her, and asks for change for a $10.
“I had someone a little while ago who asked, ‘How old are you, Ms. Sue?’” Lauck recounts, in between what appear to be tasks on a mental list she’s constantly whittling down.
She feigns exasperation, with a smile.
“I said, ‘How dare you ask a woman that!’ He said, ‘Are you 60?’ I said, ‘I’ll take it.’”
A portrait on one of the restaurant’s walls depicts a group of businessmen seated in rows, staring at the viewer. They were part of a group that once met around the restaurant’s so-called “cotton table” every day for lunch.
Cotton is a symbol of the restaurant’s history that grounds it in both the here and now and in a bygone era. Patrons once were given cotton bolls as mementos.
Some of the restaurant’s patrons, particularly of the power lunch crowd, have been rewarded for their patronage by having dishes named after them. Others have their images adorning the walls, which are covered with photos and images of guests and with messages from visitors.
A license plate reading “T SHOP” hangs on one wall. On another wall are old collections of Memphis Bar Association members. Near the front is a life-sized cutout of Elvis Presley, with a speech bubble attached to his face making him appear to say, “I just had the best lunch in town.”
The Tea Shop is many things, including a kind of unofficial political hub. That includes the notable guests who eat there regularly, and Lauck’s unofficial work behind the scenes.
There was the time, for example, she’d heard former Shelby County Mayor Jim Rout announce he would not seek re-election. Lauck said she urged Wharton, now the city mayor, to run for the job.
She put up a handmade sign in her restaurant behind the cash register in support of Wharton before he even entered the county race. She plugged him heavily until he won.
He later made a proclamation in honor of the restaurant’s 22nd anniversary, noting that “some of the most important business negotiations and deals that affect the health and well-being of our county are conducted over the best food in the entire region.”
The Little Tea Shop has a regular daily menu, with specific entrees offered on certain days of the week. Customers fill out their own menus at the table, checking off the items they want.
“How are you, hon’,” Lauck greets one patron. To another, as they pay for their meal, “Thank you. God bless you.”
“If I didn’t love it, I wouldn’t be here,” Lauck said. “This is my therapy.”
The reference to a kind of therapy and the quiver in her voice she tries to hide are in memory of her late husband James “Jimmy” Lauck. He’s the one who bought the Tea Shop and then asked “Sue” to run it.
He died last summer.
Look close, and Lauck still gives the impression – despite her public face – that some piece of her is missing.
When asked about her weekend plans, she simply explains that weekends don’t excite her anymore. Running the restaurant is “therapy.”
“After …” her voice catches. “My husband, God rest his soul, I found a beautiful letter from him. It said, Sue, you have so many friends. … They’ll want to help you. Let them help you.
“So many people were coming to me afterwards offering to help, to clean, to freshen up. I asked myself, what would Jimmy say? He’d say, let them. So I said yes. I can’t describe how good it felt.”
She let friends come into the restaurant and move pictures and clean them. They painted and gave the Tea Shop a bit of polishing.
“What can I say? I’m blessed. I love the restaurant,” Lauck said. “I live above the restaurant, so it’s an easy commute. No way to be late.”
Another kind of “therapy” for her is going to sporting events like Memphis Grizzlies games. Events like that, where she can scream with the rest of the crowd, are where she “gets all the negative energy out.”
Speaking of the Grizzlies and former coach Lionel Hollins, who was not brought back after his contract expired at the end of the season: “I miss Coach Hollins. He was a friend. But I’m optimistic about the new people they’ve brought in.”
Lauck is a Downtown booster in both an official and unofficial capacity. Regarding the former, she’s currently a member of the Center City Commission’s Design Review Board.
When asked what she loves most about her job, she shoots back immediately – “The customers.”
“I tell people, I’m traveling around the world. I meet people from all over,” Lauck said.
She’s had people come from as far away as Australia and New Zealand. Elvis Week is another example – “I’ve got regulars,” she says, “who I can count on seeing once a year, that week.”
Not long after closing time, the hum of activity and voices begins to ebb. One by one, employees approach her, say their goodbyes. Some exchange a hug with her. Others, a few friendly remarks, a smile and a wave.
Lauck makes her way outside. The restaurant’s clock has said it’s time to stop, but she never does.
She scans the street. She scoops up the odd piece of trash. She greets passersby.
The sight of a bench outside makes her pause. She and her late husband used to sit here and try to slow down, if for a little while. A plaque on it now reads: “Jimmy’s bench.”
She heads back inside. Come Monday, she’ll do it all again.