A business owner on his family's iconic 142-year-old downtown tea shop

Chances are, if you’re a bride-to-be in Milwaukee, you’ve spent an afternoon at Watts Tea Shop and the fine china store underneath. "When my wife and I got married 20 years ago, we registered at Watts. We still have the china we got there," says John Gurda, a Milwaukee journalist and historian. "People know the Watts shop as a landmark."

The shop is 142 years-old, and it's been run by the same family since its opening. Back then, it was a luxury goods store for the "white glove" set. But the store has gradually evolved into a downtown establishment. And its tea shop, which started as a side project, is now the main event, where many a couple have stopped for a meal after planning a registry. The chefs there follow recipes from the 1930s, and serve city classics like sunshine cake and chicken salad sandwiches. Last year, it was awarded a James Beard award because it's an 'American classic.'

"It's a tradition," says chief operating officer Sam Watts of the bridal parties who stop by for a meal. "I mean, you literally have three or four generations sitting down enjoying lunch. That’s where the notoriety has sprung from."

Milwaukee-born Watts is part of the newest generation of Watts Tea Shop owners. He, like his ancestors, is a Milwaukee devotee. But it wasn't always that way. Watts headed off to the East Coast for college. He hoped to become a writer, but wound up working as a businessman instead. When his grandfather got sick, he returned to the city to manage the restaurant. "I hadn't intended to take over," he says. Seven years later, he's the COO.

Part of what kept him here, he said, is the city. "Milwaukee is defined by a couple of different things," he says. "We're a very blue-collar city. People care about one another, and they're not overly extravagant. They’re very compassionate about their neighbors." He appreciates that things move a little slower, and that everyone seems to believe in the importance of family. He's also a fan of Milwaukee's beer culture, and newer concept bars like Spin and Safe House, a spy-themed restaurant that requires a password and dance for entry.

That devotion is echoed by his grandfather, who moved Watts downtown in the 1930s. Watts says his grandfather was very involved in city life: he ran for mayor and governor and helped plan festivals designed to bring people downtown. He was also one of the first white businessmen to hire black managers for a downtown store. "We lost some friends then," Watts says. "But we gained some friends too."

Milwaukee's downtown saw dark days in the late 1990s. But in the last decade, revitalization has picked up steam. And Watts is proud of his family's role in that. "We’ve had opportunities to move our store, but our family would never do that," Watts says. "It defines the community."

Images courtesy Watts Tea Shop

About the Author

Amanda Erickson

Amanda Erickson is a former senior associate editor at CityLab. 

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