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Tea Birds flies again

August 25, 2010
BERLIN — Tea Birds will fly again, this time in the Winterland Market, slightly down Main Street from its previous address. The restaurant closed in 2008 after snow caved in its roof and water started coming through the light fixtures.

It will reopen this Thursday, 21 months to the day after it closed — but who's counting? Owners husband-and-wife team Scott and Heather Gregory are. The Gregorys had been looking for a place to move even prior to snowstorm that put them out of business struck, buying the former Berlin Reporter building with the help of local businessman and Executive Director of Tri-County CAP Larry Kelley on June 8, of that year.

"[The Gregorys] are remarkable manager and citizens who care about downtown and the future of Berlin," said Mr. Kelley. "I thought I'd help."

The three owners have been working ever since to bring the building back to its original grandeur, first ripping down the tiled ceiling to find the original tin roof of the 1916 building — a process that took a month — and then going from there.

"It was a Byzantine maze," laughed Mr. Kelley of the state of the space when they bought it, with 25 cubicles in the large-but-not-gigantic area that now holds roughly a dozen tables, a waitress station, and a New York-style deli. The work was not done alone, however. Though the Gregorys handled a much of the renovation themselves, they did hire contractors —almost exclusively from the North Country — to do the jobs they couldn't handle, such as the construction of a whimsical spiral staircase that leads to an office upstairs or the creation of a glass-blown lamp that hangs in the indoor patio area.

"This is a showcase of the talents of the people of the North Country," said Mrs. Gregory. "You put all the people of the North Country in a bowl, mix them up, and this is what you get." Near the entrance to the restaurant, a framed display of all the electricians, architect, engineers, etc. who helped with the renovations hangs on the wall. Mrs. Gregory hopes to post the names and numbers of all the contractors in hopes the restaurant will stand as a testament to their good work, and garner them new business.

The restaurant has a Tuscan flavor, described Mrs. Gregory, and a recurring theme of grapes and parrots a decision that was made when the Gregorys purchased the already-dubbed Tea Birds to honor their parrot, Desiree. The waitress station is a hand-carved mahogany from the 1840s. It originally stood in Europe before being shipped over to a restaurant in Florida where the Gregorys found it. Accompanying the antique from Florida was a female pirate statue, which the Gregorys fondly refer to as Irene. Irene stands at the entrance to the restaurant, greeting any customers who may walk though the doors.

Another decorative feature of the restaurant that hails a bit closer to home is the solid Berlin Fruit Company sign that hangs over the deli. Originally, above the Berlin Fruit Company business where Middle Earth now stands, the Gregorys found the sign at a local yard sale, but decided it wasn't in the budget. Months later, the owner called them up to offer the sign for three industrial-sized pans of macaroni and cheese for his wife's birthday, Christmas, and New Year's.

"It hung on Main Street for decades. It hung in a basement in Berlin for decades. Now, it will hang in Tea Birds for decades," said Mr. Gregory. "Almost everything in here means something, whether it is a gift from someone or part of history."

Falling into the latter category are the century-old pages of the Berlin Reporter that are safely sealed between the restaurant's tables and a sheet of glass. The pages are from a stack of old Reporters, ranging from 1912 to 1916, that the Gregorys found in the basement. The Gregory's carefully selected the pages that are sure to keep customers the most interested as they wait for their food, including a front page story from the day Franklin Delano Roosevelt died, a specimen ballot featuring the Democratic, Republican, and Socialist parties, and countless quirky advertisements for everything from freckle-remover to tasty cereal. The Gregorys plan to eventually sell the rest of the newspapers they have.

"We realized the best way to recycle them is to give them to people who want them," said Mrs. Gregory.

Tea Birds, which was operated by the Gregorys for eight years previously as only a breakfast and lunch restaurant, will now be serving dinner as well, including everything from steak to chicken to pasta.

"All new food. All American. All good," quipped Mr. Kelley.

Additionally, domestic and international wines will be served, including a Copper Ridge of California house wine that is not available in liquor store, as well as a variety of beers, and cordials for after-dinner drinks.

The deli located in the front corner of the restaurant will keep the take-out and eat-in sections of the restaurant separate to avoid crowding. The deli will serve Boar's Head meats and cheeses, which are guaranteed to contain no gluten, fillers, artificial flavors, colors, or trans fat. The restaurant will continue to sell it homemade bread, including not only white and wheat, but a variety of other flavors. The deli will serve coffee and breakfast items, as well as take-out items to bring home at the end of the day, such as homemade macaroni and cheese and Shepard's pie. Sandwich and meat trays are available for functions, and gift baskets will be available during the holiday seasons.

"Our goal has always been to be a little different," said Mr. Gregory.

"Well, to just be ourselves," amended Mrs. Gregory, to which her husband agreed. "We want to play well with others so we all do well," said Mrs. Gregory on fitting in with the other restaurants in the area.

The Gregorys moved to the area from the Lakes Region in 2002 with their three children.

"We came here because of the community," said Mrs. Gregory who said she grew up on a close-knit street with all her relatives and wanted her kids to have the same thing. Berlin is the closest she has ever found to that experience.

"I call it the triology," said Mr. Gregory. "The community, the restaurant, and the house."

"When you live in a fast-paced city, you take a lot of things for granted," reflected Mrs. Gregory, "like families walking together, couples holding hands, people holding doors for people." You see those things here, said Mrs. Gregory.

One community member who the Gregorys cannot say enough about is their co-owner, Mr. Kelley, who they named the building L.M. Kelley in honor of.

"He is beyond incredible. This business wouldn't have been possible without him," said Mrs. Gregory, adding that this is only one of many businesses who can say that, even if the businesses themselves are not aware of that fact. Mr. Kelley works largely behind the scenes, they said.

Tea Birds will be employing 18 local residents when it reopens.

Though the Gregorys and Mr. Kelley said there were too many people to thank, they also wanted to recognize the work of Architect Tim Sappington, Contractor Louis Memolo, Gosselin Plumbing & Heating, and the local financial institutions and economic development organizations that contributed 55 percent of the cost of the project in loans: NCIC, CEDC, BEDC, and Northway Bank.

The restaurant's hours will be: Monday-Thursday, 5:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; and Sunday 7:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. The Gregorys encourage patrons of their restaurant and of Main Street to park in the parking lot behind the building and to use the marketplace if not as a destination, then as an alleyway. This might help clear up parking issues on Main Street, said the Gregorys. Also in the marketplace is Hot Bodz Tanning, Congressman Paul Hodes' office, and a specialty punk clothing store called Scene Street, featuring clothes from Tripp, Lolita, and rock n' roll shirts. Scene Street will be run by the Gregorys 16-year-old home-schooled daughter as a school project of sorts.

"The things she'd been headbutting us for, reading and research, she's doing it and having fun doing it," said Mrs. Gregory.

Tea Birds will open to the public Thursday morning, and as part of the grand opening festivities will be raffling off gift certificates to local businesses, as well as to Tea Birds, throughout the weekend.

The reopening comes just in time for the start of a new political season — an integral part of the cafe's history. Not only was Tea Birds Hillary Clinton's first stop of her national campaign (a bathroom break before coming to the cafe in a more professional context later that day), bragged Mr. Gregory, but Jeanne Shaheen once sang with Carole King and Mr. Kelley within the Tea Birds walls. And though those walls may be different physically, when infused with the enthusiasm and heart of the Gregorys and Mr. Kelley, they stand the same.

Martin Lord Osman
Varney Smith
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