Little Tea Shop was my lunch mainstay. I walked down the alley from my office almost every day for owner Suhair Lauck's Lacey Special — baked chicken with cornbread and rice.
But Little Tea Shop is closed — for now.
"We've been closed since the last week of March," Lauck says. "I started carryout the last week before we closed. It's not worth it. Just a few people showed up. I cooked a lot of food."
- Michael Donahue
- Suhair Lauck
Reopening a restaurant is not easy. "You have to start from scratch. It's like a brand-new restaurant because you have to start new rules and regulations." And, she says, "I'm not taking chances for me, my employees, my customers."
Since 1918, Little Tea Shop at 69 Monroe has been a gathering place. The iconic restaurant also is the subject of a documentary made by Molly Wexler.
"I think it's tradition," Lauck says. "I think everyone's used to it."
And, she says, "Everybody wants to see who's there. Friends meet friends. Even if they don't meet for lunch, they always see each other. And it's a powerful lunch. You want to be seen. You want to be heard. You want to be noticed. Especially during election time or if you're campaigning. It's a fun place to be."
Now, Lauck says it feels eerie to enter the dining room. "I came downstairs and you could drop a needle and hear it. It was quiet. No cars. No restaurants open. Like I'm isolated. I felt trapped. I haven't had that feeling in a long time."
Lauck cooks for herself, but — even though friends want her to — she hasn't made the Lacey Special or, basically, any of her Little Tea Shop fare since she closed. "They want me to make chicken salad [or] corn sticks. I don't want to turn on the oven. Usually I make hundreds a day. You have to downsize it for one or two people."
Lauck did make chicken salad and corn sticks for a neighbor. "They take care of me," she says. "The least I can do is make them corn sticks."
She's been spending time gathering up possessions for a "big, big sale in the Tea Shop."
And she's going through family photographs and memorabilia. "I was born in the Depression, so I don't throw anything away."
Lauck, who was born in Bethany, Palestine, learned to cook from her mother, father, and grandmother. But, she says, "I do better cooking my own way, [with] my own techniques."
She moved to Memphis in 1967 after marrying her first husband, who lived in Memphis. "I came in the middle of winter. It was freezing. I had never seen icicles in my life. They were coming through the windows. They looked like daggers. I was scared to go under ... scared they were going to fall and kill me.
"I loved Memphis after it was spring. Spring is gorgeous in Memphis. People welcomed me with open arms. Strangers took care of me from day one. This is my home."
She worked at La Baguette for five years, but 33 years ago she married James Lauck Sr. and went to work at his restaurant, Little Tea Shop.
They enjoyed traveling. "We used to go all over the world." Her husband died in 2012. "I have not had a vacation since my husband died." The quarantine, she says, "is vacation."
Little Tea Shop will reopen "sooner or later," Lauck says. "But it's going to be different. Right this minute I have ideas in my head, but at the same time I don't know what I'm doing."
People tell her to post a limited number of meals a day online and say, "Come and pick it up. Take it home and reheat it."
"Something like that, maybe," she says. "Because it's less work, less groceries."
That might be an option. "If you limit it to certain food every other day, it will be easier. Maybe."
Meanwhile, customers are checking up on her, Lauck says. "Every day they call and say, 'Let us know when you're going to be open 'cause we're coming. I want to be the first one.'
I tell them, 'Without you, I can't exist. Without my customers, there is no Little Tea Shop.'"