Lancaster London’s ARTea; a selection of sandwiches, cakes and scones served on painting slates with jam and clotted cream served in 30ml paint tubes and all delivered in a paint box and Conrad London St James’ Conrad Candy Shop tea, a selection of sweet treats inspired by childhood sweet shop favourites, are just two examples of some of the more creative spreads currently on offer in the capital.
“There is more competition around now and the standards just keep rising, you really have to work hard to push the boundaries,” says Zoe Wager, executive pastry chef at Conrad London St James whose team created the Conrad Candy Shop afternoon tea.
"At the higher end there is so much competition that you have to stand out from the crowd now and we are seeing more creative offerings,” agrees Keith Newton, managing director of website afternoontea.co.uk and organiser of the Afternoon Tea Awards.
"Themed afternoon teas do particularly well – if done well," he adds. "The Sanderson Mad Hatter’s Tea is our best seller and won Best Themed Afternoon Tea in the Afternoon Tea Awards 2016."
While scones with jam and cream, finger sandwiches and cakes washed down with loose-leaf tea (and perhaps a glass of fizz) are still sought-after by afternoon tea-goers, the hotels offering some additional theatre with their offering or tying into a theme are more likely to secure repeat bookings and benefit from added PR believes Newton.
"We have a lot of repeat customers through our site - 20 per cent of bookings are repeat ones - so changing your menu regularly can pay dividends as people who had a good experience will come back to try the new menu," he says.
Those such as Chesterfield Mayfair's Charlie & The Chocolate Factory Tea and the aforementioned Sanderson's Mad Hatter's Tea have been popular examples of themed afternoon teas while venues such as K West Hotel & Spa have cleverly offered some twists on a traditional afternoon tea by swapping hot drinks for tea-infused cocktails and allowing guests to take it later at night if they wish.
Innovation is welcomed, but Newton advises hotel food and beverage managers to keep 'within a traditional framework' or they may fail to lure the serial afternoon tea-goers in.
"You have to be careful with creative, because if you step too far away from the afternoon tea framework it can put some people off," he says. "Still the majority of people want scones and cucumber sandwiches, so you have to weigh up how far you push that creativity."
Wager agrees that the kind of venue will determine the style of afternoon tea.
"I have had amazing afternoons visiting some of our traditional competitors, who are truly inspirational in their dedication and commitment to the classic offer, so there is much to be said for traditional teas," she says.
"At Conrad London St. James we are a modern luxury hotel, so we appeal to a different clientele, and we are able to explore concepts which reflect our style. We pay a lot of attention to other hotels and what they offer to ensure our teas are fresh and unique, and the taste lives up to the visual appeal."
From hi-lux to high-street
While London's luxury hotel market works harder to attract guests looking for an afternoon tea 'experience', Newton has also noticed a growing number of high street restaurants, pubs and cafes with afternoon tea offerings as they look to fill the quiet period between lunch and dinner and cater for a growing need from diners.
"When we’ve surveyed people in the past they’ve booked afternoon tea for a celebration – whether it’s a wedding anniversary, or a baby shower, that kind of thing, but more recently we’ve seen more of a trend for a more casual afternoon tea," he says.
Restaurant chains Browns Brasserie and Bill's, The Cambridge Pub in Covent Garden and cafe chain Patisserie Valerie are among those who have put afternoon tea on their menus.
Browns restaurant chain introduced an afternoon tea a few years ago, which is good, but simple," says Newton. "It doesn’t have massive portions – there’s enough to fill you up but not enough for you to take some of it home in a box. Patisserie Valerie too does an afternoon tea which you can just turn up and have – you don’t have to book in advance and it fills that demand for a more impromptu occasion."
Businesses considering adding afternoon tea to their menus should ensure they already have a captive market. "Browns succeeds because it's an all-day operation already," says Newton. "No-one wants to eat afternoon tea in an empty place with no atmosphere."
Three tips to providing the perfect afternoon tea:
- Be creative (but not too much): Keep your offering fresh and inject some personality from your business in subtle ways to secure repeat bookings. Matt Hill, head chef at Down Hall hotel in Essex, mixes things up by using seasonal fruit from the venue's gardens in cakes. "I like to be creative and keep it fresh and exciting. The guests know they're getting sandwiches and scones, but you can play with the cakes. You can take them on a journey through the seasons with the cakes," he says.
- Pitch service right: Afternoon tea may be formulaic, but guests are still expecting the same level of service in a hotel as if they'd ordered an a la carte lunch or dinner. Staff still need to read guests well even though they are receiving the same menu as their neighbour. "Getting the service right is just as important as the food and drink and the customer needs to feel comfortable," says Newton. "Service can sometime be a little overbearing or over-attentive and getting the balance right is difficult and customer expectation and needs can differ from person to person – some people prefer to pour their own tea!"
- Consider replacing lunch with afternoon tea: For hotels in tourist areas where bookings for afternoon tea are plentiful, scrapping lunch and replacing it with a set afternoon tea menu could be a great way to meet demand and ensure smooth operations. "Some hotels with popular afternoon tea have stopped serving lunch. More venues offer afternoon tea from 12pm because tourists often prefer to take afternoon tea at lunch time," says Newton.
Hospitality venues can advertise their afternoon tea offerings on Afternoonteaweek.com during Afternoon Tea Week 2016 for free. Visit the website for details.