Soldiers once dubbed this stretch of Gillespie Street “Combat Alley.” And not even 10 years ago, folks laughed when John and Renate Jenkins dared to dream of a downtown tea room. If they could only see it now – McDuff’s Tea Room & Emporium flourishes as a full restaurant and gift shop. Browsers who stroll through the emporium are surrounded by nearly anything having to do with tea and the comforts that go with it. What kind of tea would you like? The Jenkinses probably have it among the hundreds of teas in stock.
Outside, lace-covered windows and a patio with carefully arranged potted plants beckon visitors to come inside. Breathe in the scents and stroll past a myriad of cups and saucers, jewelry, hats and decorative accessories – new and vintage. Then enter the tea room.
The restaurant is open for lunch from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. A dinner of the chef’s choosing is offered on fourth Fridays. But it’s a genuine treat to come for afternoon tea. Besides offering more than 20 teas, including a delicious rose petal tea and Southern sweet tea, diners are treated to a three-tiered tray of exquisite delights such as various quiches, pastries, delicate sandwiches and scones with a creamy dipping sauce, such as raspberry crème or lemon curd. Sandwiches may be filled with pimento cheese or cucumbers and seasoned cream cheese. Puff pastries in the shape of a teapot may have albacore tuna salad or chicken salad with walnuts and apples. A variety of cookies and dessert bars fill the trays. Afternoon tea is literally a meal in itself.
Everything is made fresh. Pastry chef Brandon Patterson is a Johnson & Wales graduate. He and the Jenkinses never tire of coming up with new ideas. “Pretty much all the recipes are family ones or recipes we picked up,” John Jenkins said. “We own hundreds of cookbooks.”
With luscious delights to eat, soft music providing a calm atmosphere and an array of décor, the tea experience is not to be missed. Fussy and stuffy? Renate Jenkins says no.
“People stay for hours,” she said. “They lose track of the time. They’re so caught up in the ambiance.”
The owners see to every need. Diners pour tea through a small strainer to prevent any loose leaves from getting into the cup and set the pot on a warmer with a candle below. All tea accessories can be purchased in the emporium. And coffee lovers are not to be left out. They are served fresh ground coffee in an individual French press. Renate differentiates the afternoon tea experience from high tea, which is a bit stuffier.
Visitors never know which teapot they will get on their table, a different one could arrive every time. The china on the table doesn’t match, but customers love it, Renate said. It’s part of McDuff’s eclectic style. And just about everything, from the décor on the walls to the knickknacks on the furniture, is for sale. “Everything is somewhat eclectic, which is typical of a tea room,” John says. John and Renate bought the former General Mercantile/Fayetteville Drug Company building in 1999, renovated it and first opened the tea emporiumin 2001. They named it McDuff’s after their West Highland terrier that had been a part of the family for more than 16 years. And coincidentally, the name has historic ties as the local area was originally settled by Scots, John said. “It’s just something different than people anticipate in a military town,” Renate said. Born in Munich, Germany, Renate came to the United States when she was 6 years old. Years later, she returned to her native country and met John, the son of a military father. After graduation, John followed in his father’s footsteps by joining the Army, and he and Renate were reunited in Fayetteville. Through the years of raising two children and working demanding full-time jobs, the couple had a dream tucked away. John retired from Moen in Sanford; Renate logged 25 years in the medical records department of Cape Fear Valley Medical Center. The two of them envisioned Fayetteville’s downtown as a place that would not only attract new business but people who would live downtown and feel safe, John said. And despite the naysayers, they were one of the first couples to move downtown. It was a risky adventure at the time as revitalization was just beginning, John
said. “Actually, this was a fairly rough neighborhood,” he said. In renovating the building, they turned part of the attic into an upstairs apartment with separate living quarters for John’s father, who was ill. When his father died three years later, they opened the tea emporium downstairs. They had seen a tea room in Sanford and had their hearts set on opening one for themselves. “Both of us have a love and a fascination for all things tea,” Renate said.And, as they had hoped, their downtown apartment and business set the stage. “Now people take more pride in the center of their city,” John said. “People realize the benefit of the historic downtown.” The couple opened the tea room in 2004. One could call it the tea rooms because there is the main tea room in the front, plus the blue room, red room and an upstairs banquet room/loft which looks down on the main tea room. Each has its own personality, flair and rotating décor. High up toward the loft is what John calls the “great wall of china.” Across the curved wall hang rows of china plates. The upstairs walls are filled with more décor, including an upside-down broken chair that was converted into a planter. “It was such a beautiful chair, I didn’t want to throw it out,” John said. “My wife wanted to see the caning, so I hung it upside down.” Customers who first shopped at the emporium couldn’t wait for the tea room to open and the house was full when it did, Renate said. These days, it is still a popular lunch stop for visitors who can choose from an assortment of salads, sandwiches, soups and quiche, as well as a feature of the day. The McDuff’s signature sandwich consists of thinly sliced turkey with brie and apricot-orange chutney on grilled rye bread. The house salad has toasted pine nuts, Gorgonzola and pear on baby greens with a choice of balsamic vinaigrette or lemon oil. Some of the soups that might be offered are creamy tomato, potato bacon or salmon chowder. And make room for one of the 15 rotating desserts, including the popular strawberry nut cake and homemade ice cream in the summer. For those who are looking for a restaurant that is more than just a place to eat, McDuff’s offers a unique experience. “I want it to be an experience you don’t get anywhere else in Fayetteville,” Renate said. CV