Audrey Farrelli’s Serenity Garden Tea House & Café is a flowered-covered cottage set amid a cluster of separated homes turned businesses with a bucolic backdrop, the very definition of restful bliss. Rest, however, has been in short supply for Farrelli this fine afternoon, as she’s just finished hosting three parties.
Prior to our interview, she shuffled out of the dining room, where moments before there had been a flurry of female encounters and stuck her head in the kitchen to ensure everything was in order for the next drove of guests.
We’re meeting up to talk about her tea house, which coincidentally, she is excited to talk about. And thankfully, she has a lot to say about other things, including the state of affairs of S. Dixie Highway Corridor’s future in the city.
Located just east of S. Dixie Highway at 316 Vallete Way, this picturesque tea house has been around for 21 years. Farrelli is the third owner. With a degree in hotel hospitality and management, she’s definitely not new to this business. She has worked all over the world in restaurants, bars and hotels, mostly hotels.
Born in Dublin, Ireland, Farrelli has that unmistakably charming Irish accent and funny bone. She has been in the States since 1999. And it’s not surprising to hear that work brought her here.
How did you end up in Florida?
A restaurant that I worked in Dublin, opened a restaurant here and I came over to work for them. Initially it was supposed to be for six months, maybe a year. And so, I said, why not? Spend a year in some sunshine… that doesn’t sound too bad.
As a youngster, did you realize this is what you wanted to do for the rest of your life?
That realization never happened. It’s actually all that I’ve known. My parents owned hotels, so I grew up in hotels. My grandparents owned bars and hotels, too. We lived in hotels, and there have always been bars and hotels in our family, and they’re still there. My sister has a diner up in Canada.
So this industry was easy to get into?
Oh, yes. It was just what we knew. We were used to talking to people. I know that sounds strange, but my family felt quite at ease welcoming people into our home and restaurant to enjoy themselves. That’s what we grew up doing.
For your family, what do you think was the fascination with this industry?
There was no fascination. For them, it was just the way of life. My grandfather started off with pubs. And this was from both my mother and father’s side of the family, mind you. It’s more a hospitality thing. More of a giving people a good time, more of people coming in, talking and having fun…and for us it was just being part of the community. We enjoy providing people a place to gather.
And you have the perfect personality for that…
Well, there were four kids in my family. Three of us had the personality for this [hospitality] but this was not for our other sister; she was not the chit-chatty type of person.
You’re the type that likes to chit-chat and remembers people’s names…
Yes! I’ve always been really good about that. Not as much now, I’m not going to lie about that one! [laughing] But you remember people when they come in and you know what they’re going to order. You know exactly what they like or don’t like. I tell my servers, don’t give her [customer], she doesn’t like it! This is what she wants. You remember stuff. But, really, it’s all about attention to detail. I really think it’s more about the forte than the personality.
What’s your clientele like?
It’s mostly women of all scopes, and age groups. This place is different in that it really creates a lot of memories for people. Like the grandmother who comes in with the granddaughter that lives here, and the grandmother lives somewhere else. They come here every year and they take a picture in the same spot. So, the tea house is a memory creating place. We have a lot of events like weddings, bridal showers, baby showers, and birthdays.
How about for couples?
Oh, yes! This is a great date spot, especially early dates or Valentine’s Day dates. Valentine’s Day is my busiest day of the whole year. I usually do the weekend before and after as well, especially if it falls on a week day. Not everybody can get away on that day.
Honestly, if I was on a date and somebody brought me to a place like this, I would be well impressed…
Absolutely! Because that would say that they were more interested about you than them.
I can see why couples would love coming here. Aside from your delicious food and ambiance, this little cottage has character…
Yes, we’ve attracted couples who have come for tea and then stage a photo shoot, and then tend to return every year. I remember a couple who came for their 60th wedding anniversary. They renewed their vows outside in the courtyard by the arbor and all their seven kids flew in from different parts of the country. They all wore synchronized clothing and all the women had red roses. They were the nicest and funniest people. The couple was in their 90s, and right after the ceremony, the woman turned around and said, “I can’t believe I’m doing this again!” I was so honored to be able to provide this special moment for these people.
Tell me about your menu selection.
Tea is obviously the main beverage I serve. There’s a full range of black, green, herbals—all organic loose teas that you can enjoy here and are also available for purchase for people to enjoy at home. I have about 60 teas, and 20 percent of them rotate seasonally, although there’s a great selection that are the core and those I have year round. Their quality is superb. Quite a few are blended just for me, so they’re my flavors. A lot of people who have the teas here, often purchase some on the way out. I offer single tea saches, so people don’t have to go through so much hassle to brew them. I also serve coffee, wine, beer and champagne.
Do you consider yourself a seasonal tea house, or are you busy year round?
Like any other business, the summers are less busy, but not too much. When I first took it over, I thought it would change from season to season drastically, but I was happy to see a lot of local neighbors come in. I live locally too.
And does it help that you’re in this little cottage enclave we, your neighbors, lovingly call Cottage Corner?
Yes, absolutely! We all complement each other really well. Everybody scratches each other’s backs, without an effort, really. We do whatever we can do to support one another.
Do you think that is because you are all women?
I definitely think that there is a part of that that makes a difference. But, we’re really hard workers. I can honestly say that for every single woman who is here. You don’t wait for somebody else to do something. You just do it! And that’s a trait…
Of a woman.
Exactly. Multitasking. Attention to detail. That’s our forte. Those are female things. And eyes in the back of our heads. I don’t have kids, but somebody once said, “If a mother were to write all the things that she does, she could do every single job that exists in the whole world. She just doesn’t realize it.”
It’s so interesting hearing you say that because it’s exactly what Tina [Hardman], Theresa [Dulong] and Flor said about the way a woman runs her business, which is in a way, the way she runs her home. And, the way the four of you work together. It’s beautiful to see that woman power and unity. As they say, in unity there is strength.
I believe that. You know, I hate to think that it would be different if a man owned one of these businesses, but each one of us is definitely bringing something into this close-knit business setting. And these are all female-oriented businesses.
Now, when you were looking for a place, why did you choose West Palm Beach?
When I came to the States, the restaurant was based on Palm Beach Gardens, so I lived there for the first eight years. The restaurant relocated and I didn’t want to do that. I went to work at O’Sheas the Irish bar on Clematis Street, who was looking for a restaurant manager. That was just a transition, I thought. I didn’t know if I was going to stay or not, but I did end up staying there for almost 12 years.
So, that really introduced you to West Palm Beach…
To the people, to the community. To this day, not one day goes by without somebody coming here who doesn’t know me from O’Sheas. It was a community thing.
What are your thoughts about this city, the changes and the plans specifically for the South Dixie Corridor?
I’m exceptionally excited about that! I live in Grandview Heights, so I only need to walk three blocks from here. When I first came to West Palm Beach, I thought, this is where I want to live.
What was the attraction to Grandview Heights?
It’s the character, it’s the older homes, it’s the personality. It’s being an individual among a lot of other people. What the city plans with S. Dixie is going to be phenomenal! It’s going to change the whole dynamic of the residents who live here.
Could it be because this area of town has that fabulous European flair, with tree-lined streets where you can walk to your favorite restaurants and small shops owned by people who, in most cases, are your neighbors?
Very much so. And it’s going to be even more like that once they do what they plan on S. Dixie. One thing I know, there’s going to be more parking, and that’s huge! The other big thing, with the planned walkway, that’s going to bring in more pedestrians to our area. So, people will park at the Norton Museum, see the exhibits and then walk down the street to eat, shop and have a good time.
And how exciting for your tea house. People strolling along and stopping to get a bite of your delicious menu.
Yes, and you know, we have the grab and go. People walking by, stop by our front door and pick up a scone or other desert. Imagine when the Norton reopens and when S. Dixie is revamped! It’s going to be really good for all of us here at…
The Cottage Corner.
Yes, indeed! [laughing]
Audrey Farrelli’s Serenity Garden Tea House & Café