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VOL. 118 | NO. 167 | Wednesday, September 15, 2004

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By Andy Meek

Little Tea Shop Serves Up Southern Charm


The Daily News

From humble beginnings, the Little Tea Shop restaurant in Downtown Memphis has grown into a magnet for the citys movers and shakers.

At lunchtime on any given weekday, the restaurant at 69 Monroe Ave. is usually packed with politicians, judges, bankers, doctors and lawyers all of whom enjoy the eaterys Southern cuisine and the homespun charm of its owner, Suhair Lauck.

Warm welcome. Shes usually the first face seen inside by customers and the one most readily associated with the Downtown fixture. Lauck, born in Palestine and a Memphis resident for almost 40 years, handles most of the duties at the restaurant. She warmly welcomes regulars by name and never forgets a new face. She knows which tables longtime customers prefer, what time theyll likely arrive and any special diet needs they have.

Some of them, particularly of the power lunch crowd, have been rewarded for their patronage by having dishes named after them. Memphis lawyer Arnold Perl, for example, one of the founding members of the Young & Perl law firm, chairman of the New Memphis Arena Public Building Authority and a regular Little Tea Shop patron, has his name attached to one of the restaurants specialty soups.

People think this is just a restaurant, but its not, Lauck said.

In reality, its a social spot with regional charm. For many customers, said Laucks husband, Jim, eating at the restaurant is like eating at home. The walls and windows are covered with local artwork and University of Memphis Tigers and Memphis Grizzlies posters, many of them autographed with personal notes to Lauck.

Its about loyalty. But its the Southern cuisine that Lauck said keeps customers coming back especially the dishes that bear their names.

Everybody always asks me that, Lauck laughed when asked how she decides to name dishes after customers. Its about loyalty. For customers who come here a long time, its the least we can do to honor them.

Jim Lauck said 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 as soon as they sit down. That way, he said, service is faster and more accurate.

My wife is from the Middle East, and cooking is very dear to her, he said. With her seasonings and spices, she really wanted to get into the restaurant business.

Rooted in history. And while the restaurants name could appear misleading to new customers, he said the name has its origins in history.

In most towns, there was always a little tea shop, usually downtown, which generally had home-cooked types of food, he said. So with the Little Tea Shop, we just carried on the name because of the history and the reputation and tried to improve it a little bit.

The Laucks live in a space above the restaurant, which opened in 1918. The Little Tea Shop serves lunch from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday, and Lauck usually can be seen in her baseball cap scurrying between tables, the kitchen and the cash register, meeting and greeting patrons.

Popular topics. And she always has time to talk to anyone about two of her biggest passions: sports and politics.

Her father was a coach, and her love of local sports is evident from the restaurants Grizzlies- and Tigers-themed decor. In conversation, shes also quick to share her ideas on local, regional and international politics. Shes known U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr. since he was young, and she counts Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton Jr. as a friend and regular customer.

Lauck also tells the story of how she talked her way into getting current vice presidential candidate John Edwards to autograph a copy of Time magazine for her on Edwards recent campaign stop in Memphis.

And she has some advice for aspiring politicians.

If you want to win an election, you better eat at the Tea Shop and be seen, she laughed. I can make you or break you.

Showing support. To demonstrate her point, she recalled the day she heard former county Mayor Jim Rout announce he would not seek re-election. Lauck said she urged Wharton to run. She put up a handmade sign in her restaurant behind the cash register Wharton for Mayor before he even entered the race. She plugged Wharton heavily until he won the position.

And in July, Wharton returned the favor. He made a proclamation before the Little Tea Shops customers in honor of the restaurants 22nd anniversary under its current ownership. He noted 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.

Southern charm. Perhaps one of the best-loved aspects of the restaurants charm, Jim Lauck suggested, is its healthy serving of Southern hospitality. In Whartons proclamation, for example, he noted that along with the restaurants food, we are served with some of the finest Southern hospitality in the Bluff City.

Lauck smiled in agreement.

Many people talk like they dont like Memphis, and I say why? she said. Memphis welcomed me with open arms from the beginning. Theres nothing like Southern hospitality.

Judging from the many notes of appreciation shes saved, her customers would agree.


The Little Tea Shop

Owners: Suhair and Jim Lauck

Founded: 1918

Basics: The restaurant, a Downtown fixture, dishes up Southern-style cuisine and service.


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