Friday 13 April 2012

The Cost Of Afternoon Tea - Jumping On The Bandwagon?

On driving home from a cake decorating course with my lovely friend, Cat of Cakes By Cat in Ely, I strangely tuned into BBC Radio 2 for the VERY first time in my life, only to catch the very amusing Jeremy Vine having a good old moan about the cost of afternoon tea.

The subject of afternoon tea fascinates me, being self taught in tea knowledge, afternoon tea etiquette and even in the art of baking. I find it easy to sit on the sidelines and just watch these arguments and rants about this topic, but I feel it's my time to have a go at chipping in here. Here goes my second rant. 

High Tea was said to be the very last meal eaten by the occupants within the third class deck on the Titanic over 100 years ago and we all know that tea and the history of afternoon tea dates back even further still. It was a way to fuel up between meals originally for the servants of rich households, to fill that empty void between breakfast and dinner whilst racing up and down the stairs carrying out their daily chores around the manor or castle. It was enjoyed luxuriously much later on by the more wealthy.

Over the last couple of years, afternoon tea has made a huge comeback and it is impacting on us all, with many people setting up their own afternoon tea based businesses across the country. It's great to see, however, it's not so great to see it when it's done badly or without thought. And I have experienced many over the last year who have simply jumped on the bandwagon and gone with the trend, naturally. 

It turns out there has recently been a discussion through Which?, that has FINALLY flagged up the topic of extortionate prices tagged to high tea or afternoon tea, specifically in hotels which mostly seem to be jumping on the afternoon tea bandwagon left right and centre. I've no problem with this if it's done well.

It's a subject that I had noted some time ago whilst attempting to enjoy an afternoon tea tier at a luxury hotel last summer with a friend whilst we wildly swatted away wasps and insects that were desperate to join in, what turned out to be our rather stressful afternoon nibbling on baked delights from this lovely 4 star hotel in Cambridge. Although this was not the hotels' fault, it was nature taking us on, as it usually does whilst eating al fresco. 
To be completely honest, I couldn't fault the food at this particular hotel and it was in fact really good value for money and a delicious afternoon tea which had been thought through and wasn't as generically turned out as some establishments I have been to in the region. They offered us battenburg cake, coffee cream filled eclairs, various delicious finger sandwiches, buttery biscuits and fluffy scones with strawberry jam and clotted cream. The time had been taken to create this tier and we waited patiently for this to arrive at our table. It was more than worth the wait. 

For £18 per head, in my opinion, this was value for money. We were not rushed, we stayed a good 3 hours chinwagging and catching up on the last few weeks and we bathed in the sun on the patio before being allowed to take our loose leaf tea indoors to sink into their comfy sofas for a little "nappette" afterwards. Eating all this afternoon tea is tiring don't you know?!

The staff were knowledgeable and even discussed gluten free afternoon tea options for another friend of ours, should we wish to come back with her again another day. Nothing was too much effort and we left feeling as though we had been on a mini holiday, even if it was just for a few hours. This is how afternoon tea in a hotel should be taken and experienced.


In my day job, I work for a very large retail company and I have to deal with customer complaints. I have no idea why I am still so chirpy, I really don't haha. But not so long ago, I had a complaint from a lady who had purchased an afternoon tea for two package with a hotel in London. I won't name names.

She had booked herself and her 85 year old grandma in for afternoon tea as a treat for her birthday, however when she arrived, they were shown to a rickety & outdated wine bar with high chairs and vom-inducing spiraled coloured carpet from the 70's. Her grandma struggled to get up onto the chairs, however for the quick wait whilst the hotel prepared the tables in the adjacent dining lounge, they managed and got her up on the chair to wait a while. Or so they thought. 

But when the waiter served their napkins and cutlery at the BAR and advised them that they would be eating here, the customer was more than unpleased and rightfully so, I would have been fuming.

They sat through dry and tasteless, very & hard crusted stale sandwiches and pastries that were soggy bottomed and inedible. They paid £30 each for the privilege and got to share their end of the bar with a drunk businessman and her grandma struggled to get comfortable, so they didn't stay long. 
It was stressful for them both and this had been advertised to them as sumptuous and luxurious and all the other ridiculous words used to describe a plate of baked goods and a pot of tea. 
Far from the expectation, which was just gutting to hear. 

Needless to say, I was the right person to discuss this with and I managed to find out exactly who this hotel was, precisely what level of service she received and much much more. I refunded her money completely and made sure that our buying team for this experience was made aware right away, this is just disgusting and exactly my point here.

Hotels and coffee shops are jumping on the afternoon tea bandwagon. And they are doing it badly.

Not all of them, some are fantastic and doing a little digging this week, I know several people who have been to London and spent an afternoon in luxury hotels spending in the region of £50 each on afternoon tea and they didn't regret it one bit. It's fantastic to hear that some are getting it spot on. But the ones who are fleecing us and luring us in with the right words, but not delivering the goods are making me angry.

I don't go to many hotels for tea, because there are so many fabulous independent tea rooms out there to try that I would much prefer to pay £18 for a countryside retreat complete with roaring fire in the winter or rose garden or beach view in the summer. But I know that isn't always everybody's cup of tea.

Most Cambridgeshire tearooms that I will go to and try would cost me between £12 to £20 per head, depending on where I go. this is reasonable, so long as I enjoy the experience. Any more than this and I would now seriously consider reading good old honest blog posts and not hotel review sites, etc for their opinion. I want to hear the brutal, honest truth and it seems bloggers are key here, more than ever. 

The argument that Jeremy Vine and Which? have put forward is that the ingredients for afternoon tea can only cost you £4 or £5 max to buy yourself in the supermarkets and this may be true, however what you do have to consider is that when afternoon tea is done perfectly, the love, attention and time it takes to make the delicate finger sandwiches and to bake the most jaw dropping cake takes a lot more care than you can imagine.
Time is what you pay for with a good home made afternoon tea tier. 

It's a lot of love that goes into this sort of affair, as well as the attention to detail. Fresh flowers in a milk jug or a vase, music matched perfectly in the background to help relax you, crisp white linen, fine or mismatching china picked to match your miniature cake-based feast, quality silverware to spread the cream on your scone.

If it's served on generic white china and you are handed scones made with buckets of Bicarbonate of Soda which makes your tongue fizz, then I wouldn't be happy to pay anything over £10 per head. If that.

However, the more you see, the more detail you are provided with, the more knowledgeable your host is, the more rare your loose leaf tea, the more I would expect to pay.

You get what you pay for. 

Of course, I host my own afternoon tea parties, not being the cheapest, not being the most expensive, I charge what I need to earn a living.
However, much to my partners dismay, I pour my heart and soul into my afternoon tea packages and I am always on the search to better my product, my hosting, my table, ensuring that I make myself unique and that I listen to my customer. Every tea party is different, which is why people will come back time and time again and suggest me to their friends and family. I think listening to the customer goes a long way and it will gain respect from your customers, no matter where you are providing afternoon tea, be it in a hotel, as a private caterer or a tea room or coffee shop. 
It's important now, more than ever, to get this right. You have a lot of competition out there and it's going to get bigger this year still.

Afternoon tea is a treat. Not to be rushed. 
If you take tea in a place where the staff are rude to you and rush you to leave your table for the next customers, this is not going to be value for money if the price is high. You need to be allowed to take your time, have a second wind if you desire and cannot manage the entire tier in one go. You should be offered fresh hot water to top up your teapot and you should be given a little advice or knowledge with your tea selection, it adds to the value and you know your waiting staff know what they are talking about. 

I want to know YOUR best and worst experiences of afternoon tea or high tea. 
Have you been to a superb countryside or coastal tearoom that you can't stop raving about? 
Or have you been to a fabulous hotel who bowed down to your every whim?
Perhaps you went for afternoon tea and ended up at Fawlty Towers?... How did you react? 

Will the upcoming Jubilee or Olympic events change the way afternoon tea is taken or priced? With more tourists coming into the country this year for various reasons, will they now be stung for the price of a sandwich and a slice of cake?

Leave a comment below and let us know your thoughts on this topic.

Are you a tea room host or hostess who has trouble filling your tables, but need to make the money back on this offering? 

I would love to hear your thoughts.

Miss Sue Flay 


  1. I went to J Lewis on Oxford Street last year when I'd missed lunch and didn't want to wait until the evening. Delicious selection of sandwiches, dainty cakes and scones. Reasonable price, although I can't recall exactly what now. However, the store in Cambridge served an indifferent, dismal offering last time I was there and I was disappointed. So glad I caught your tweet!

    1. Wow Moira, I would never have thought of John lewis for afternoon tea... how frustrating, but not unfamiliar of chains to get it right one place and so wrong in the next. What a shame, but glad Oxford Street offered you some respite! xx

  2. We recently booked afternoon tea at a 4 star hotel in Newmarket for 8 members of my family as part of my celebrations. Despite booking a table in the orangery when we arrived we were told that there were no tables available for us. Instead they put us in a drab function room. The table was set up as though it was a conference. Food was served after about 30 mins ( not enough sandwiches for us to have one each, really thick dry bread, boring fillings, dry fruit cake and soggy eclairs). Tea was poured for each person then empty teapot was left on table. We had to go and ask for more tea, milk ran out, we had a general feeling that they had forgotten all about us/couldn't care less. Really disappointing for a 4 star hotel. Not sure how much it was per person but a real disappoint, nothing special about it at all.

    1. This is terrible and exactly what makes me angry about hotels jumping on the afternoon tea bandwagon. If you aren't passionate about it, don't offer it. Simple as that in my own opinion. I am so sorry that you had a bad experience, especially when it was meant to be a celebration. Hopefully the company made up for it.

  3. My most surprising afternoon tea was at Waitrose in Hitchin. It was on offer for £5 (usually only £6.75) and my mum and I wanted somewhere we knew would be quick, as we didn't want to worry about catching a train. I wasn't expecting much, but it was genuinely delicious. The finger sandwiches were very fresh, bread soft and springy, with tasty and well seasoned fillings. Cake-wise there were two mini raisin-scones, served with beautful raspberry jam and clotted cream, a large fondant fancy, and a macaroon biscuit. They offered good customer service by offering to swap the scones on one plate for a slice of a different cake (we chose a ginger loaf). Tea was served in individual teapots with plenty of water to top up when we asked. I will be going back!

    But my most special afternoon tea was at Sotheby's auction house cafe in London. It was a few years ago, so I can't remember all the details. I'm sure back then it was under £20 (hard to find in London!). Proper linen, bone china, plentiful tea. A decent selection of sandwiches, beautiful toasted teacakes with orange and cinnamon butter, scones, and a delicious selection of petits fours. It's the place I most want to have afternoon tea again.

    Sadly, I have been rather disappointed with most other afternoon teas I have had, even in posh hotels. Carboard, afternoon tea by numbers, often with stale ingredients. Unforgiveable really.

    I would love to find out about independent tea rooms in Cambridgeshire and Hertfordshire. I'll be a good customer!

    1. Wow I am impressed on the waitrose front, I wonder if cambridge does something similar... I shall check it out my lovely : )
      Do check my left hand side of the blog for local independents and my fave hotspots for tea and cake in cambs and herts... it may help to find you a new fave spot. If you come across any others, please do let us know xx

    2. Hello you two!
      Have you found out news about the Waitrose tea? I couldn't find anything online and don't live in the UK, but would love to have a place to quickly seclude myseld whilst travelling single during UK. Ta for any news!

      (Found the blog only yesterday and am already deelpy in love)

  4. I'm thinking of hosting my first proper tea party for the Jubilee so thanks for the advice! I think my favourite place to go for a cream tea (rather than afternoon tea) is The Orchard in Grantchester as sitting out in the lovely deckchairs with a yummy homemade scone is absolute bliss in the summer!

    As for good afternoon tea experiences, I went to a hen party the other week to St. James Sofitel hotel off Pall Mall. There were about 13 of us and paid £19 each and were supplied with an array of sandwiches, freshly baked scones with lemon curd and rose jam (sooooooo nice!) then an amazing selection of cakes to finish, not to mention the exciting tea list. They forgot a couple of peoples' tea orders but I think that was more our fault because we kept changing our minds and people arrived late so they did well all things considered. It was certainly worth the £19 (we had vouchers) and were even treated to a harp player!

    I'd also recommend the Artisan in Morecambe if you're ever in the area. Perfect mix of seaside, mismatched china, tasty teas and a little deli in the back! Not a big classy affair and you don't get a pretty cake stand but it certainly does the job!

    1. Hey Betherina, Do it!... There is nothing better than a tea party at home, I hope it goes well for you : )
      Rose Jam is beautiful, I serve it with Madeleines, it works so well.
      Bad experiences ad The Orchard myself, not my fave location I have to say... much better little unfound place not far down the road hehe.... I LOVE Cambridgeshire for the little places we have to explore : )

  5. We (hubby and I) had high tea at The Dorchester as a thirtieth birthday treat for me. It was expensive (£39 a head) but was very, very good. The area is very well set up with sofas and plants so that although it's technically a hallway you feel very secluded in your little area. Service was, as you would expect, impeccable. The sandwiches were delicate and delicious and I've never liked an egg sandwich before in my life but had three of these! There was an apparently unlimited supply of sandwiches offered followed by matchless scones with excellent jam, and then some very sophisticated french pastries. There was an incredible selection of teas - I'd just found out I was pregnant and had a delicious South African rooibos tea with orange and cranberry overtones. As it was my birthday, they also came out with a chocolate torte with candles and sang happy birthday, which was a lovely touch. I was far too full for it so they put it in a box together with the leftover pastries for us to take home. Although expensive the quality of the hotel was obvious in the food and the level of service. A really special experience and worth paying for.

  6. OOh the Rooibos sounds lovely : )
    And love the birthday candles, it's the attention to detail that works and sticks in the memory, and if you can take your leftovers home for a second wind, even better hehe. xx

  7. When I lived in London I used to go to the Orangery at Kensington Palace for afternoon tea if we ever had any slight excuse to celebrate. It was lovely and not too pricey.

    Now that I live in Cambridgeshire I'm going to have to seek you out...!!! I've just discovered this blog and I LOVE it.

    1. Aw Josie, please do come and join us, it would be great to meet a fellow tea lover xx