Frankfort tearoom taps into period teas
By Donna Vickroy firstname.lastname@example.org February 24, 2014 3:45PM
If you go ...
The Pickwick Society Tearoom,
Gifts & Antiques, 122 Kansas St.
Frankfort; (815) 806-8140;
Updated: March 27, 2014 6:13AM
Located in Frankfort’s historic district, the Pickwick Society Tearoom, Gifts & Antiques is an eclectic mix of past and present, of treats and treasures, a place to sit and chat for a spell while you sip the popular ginger peach white tea, enjoy a seasonal lunch or sample the pastry of the day.
“Today is National Sticky Bun Day,” owner Cindy Vassell said one Friday morning. “So we’re making monkey bread muffins.”
It’s that kind of personal touch that separates Pickwick from the chain coffee and tea shops that have been growing in popularity lately. And it is Vassell’s attention to detail that recently earned her one of five prestigious Lincoln Awards from the Illinois Office of Tourism.
The Lincoln Awards recognize behind the scenes stars who go above and beyond for the Illinois tourism industry, said Jennifer Hoelzle, deputy director for the office. The 2014 awards were presented during the Excellence in Tourism Awards Feb. 3 at the annual Governor’s Conference on Travel and Tourism at the Palmer House in Chicago.
The IOT cited Vassell’s tireless work to build Frankfort’s downtown business district, Hoelzle said.
“It is such an honor that they love what we do,” Vassell said.
And they’re hardly the only ones. Pickwick is rated the No. 1 tearoom in Illinois on teamap.com.
Stepping into the shop is kind of like visiting Grandma’s house; everything’s clean but nothing matches.
“And we don’t care,” Vassell said with a laugh.
Whether they come first for the fine array of all-natural whole-leaf teas, for a bite to eat or for the collection of antique gifts and decor, they almost always come back because of the way it makes them feel. Welcome. Comfortable.
“We have regular customers who send us Christmas cards and Valentine’s,” Vassell said. “We celebrate their family’s special events with them. We appreciate that so much.”
The shop also is a popular stop on the Chicago Southland Convention and Visitors Bureau’s travel writers’ tours.
“It’s an easy sell for us,” bureau spokesperson Scott Bort said.
Vassell’s daughter, Heidi Hughes, started the tearoom at a different Frankfort location 10 years ago. She named it after the club formed by the four March sisters in Louisa May Alcott’s book, “Little Women.” The girls called their club the Pickwick Society because they admired author Charles Dickens.
“Heidi was doing well but then she fell madly in love, got married and moved to Baltimore,” Vassell said.
At the time, Vassell and her sister had an antique business in town that was struggling amid the economic meltdown. Vassell decided to combine the two efforts.
“And here I am, 10 years later,” she said.
While running the shop has always been rewarding, she said, it hasn’t always been easy. It’s been hard to keep ahead of the recession.
But five years ago, a brainstorming ultimatum issued to the staff resulted in an idea that she says saved the business. They basically tapped into the very reason so many patrons enjoy the shop — its ability to transcend time.
They decided to link up with local drama groups and actors, which lead to Timely Teas offered six times a year. The ticketed events transport guests back to specific time periods to meet actors who portray Mary Todd Lincoln, Jane Austen or Louisa May Alcott.
In March, Mark Twain will make a visit. Next fall, Dolly Madison and Jacqueline Kennedy are expected.
“The Timely Teas have been hugely popular,” Vassell said.
Now she’s working on a Downton Abbey event — “we’re still deciding whether to go with upstairs or downstairs,” she said — and she’d like to host an event featuring the last meal served to Titanic passengers.
The shop also offers bridal lunches, quilt shows, tea parties and holiday events.
“We’re a little bit of everything,” Vassell said. “And we love it that way.”