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Secret Garden serves up secret to tea room's success story

Family-owned businesses have longer lifespans because they tend to keep the big picture in mind
beverage, food, food industry, Secret Garden serves up secret to tea room's success story

For a restaurant that was started to please a grandmother, the Secret Garden Tea Co. is the little tearoom that could – and did.

The family-owned tearoom celebrated its 16th anniversary on October 25, proving a niche restaurant can weather an unforgiving industry and difficult economic times.

Owner Kathy Wyderattributes the longevity and success of the tearoom to passion for the business and the close-knit staff.

?Our staff is like our family,? she said. ?If there?s a caring there and the passion, it makes a huge difference with everything in your company. It carries you through those hard times ? if you don?t have that family feeling and that passion, I don?t know what you do through those hard times.?

The tearoom was originally borne from a complaint from Wyder?s grandmother. Gammy Bentall wished the Kerrisdale neighbourhood had a nice place to have afternoon tea.

Wyder and her close friend Andrea Wadmantook the idea, and in 1995, established a small tearoom with pastries and a variety of flavourful teas. Their families supported their efforts with donations of fine china, including an antique china set from Wyder?s grandmother.

The two women started with a staff of five, which has now multiplied to 25. Among the early staff members was Erin McBeath Wyder, who bought into the company and became a co-owner in 1999, after marrying Kathy?s brother.

?I?m so grateful for my sister-in-law. I couldn?t do it without that partnership,? Wyder said. ?I?m like the CEO and Erin is like the COO. And it works out great because I don?t like to do what she does and she doesn?t like to do what I do.?

The sisters-in-law have worked together to transform the restaurant over the years to keep things fresh. They?ve gone from counter service to table service, eliminated their wedding cake service, added a breakfast menu and shifted their primary focus to their high-tea service.

David C. Bentall, founder and president of Next Step Advisors, advises family businesses such as the Secret Garden on how to have ?the business not wreck the family and the family not wreck the business.?

Bentall says businesses such as the Secret Garden have a leg up on other companies because the owners tend to keep the big financial picture in mind.

?Family businesses tend to make longer-term investments rather than worry about quarterly stock reports,? he said.

He said a recent study showed the average lifespan of non-family companies is about 12 years, whereas the lifespan for family companies is about twice that at 24 years.

Family businesses often have greater longevity not just because of the tighter links within the business, but also because family-controlled companies establish more conservative financial structures and often carry less debt, he said.

Wyder followed that rule of thumb, managing to pay off her debts in just five years. While it was tough at times, she knows pinching her pennies helped her stay mindful of the bottom line.

?I drew a really small salary during that time,? Wyder said. ?But I think it?s good because you appreciate things more if you really had to work and pay off that debt.

?I think the bottom line with some companies, there?s no accountability for that. And it?s really easy to spend money without realizing what that?s costing the company.?

A common challenge Bentall sees family businesses grapple with is confusion created when lines are blurry between familial and business decisions.

?One of the challenges is that people sometimes don?t change hats when they should – they let family discussions influence things in the boardroom. And when they get home, they let boardroom table discussions dominate the kitchen table.?

Wyder said she and her sister-in-law talked about the business constantly when they first started out, which sometimes created tension. To combat this issue, the two have an agreement ? when they spend time together outside work, they don?t talk about work.

?It doesn?t enhance a family dinner to be talking about business all the time. You want to have time with your family,? Wyder said. ?If you?re having a nice turkey dinner, that?s not the time to be doing that.?

Wyder looks forward to meeting future challenges head on, and in the meantime, she will celebrate each of their accomplishments.

?I was driving by the other day and I saw all these women in the window having high tea together, and my friend said, ?How does that make you feel?? I said it makes me really happy because that was my vision.? ?