LINCOLN PARK — It's tea time — and "t" stands for teaching etiquette to children.
A Lincoln Park woman is bringing the age-old problem of teaching manners to moppets straight to the home through afternoon tea parties.
"Everyone should feel welcome at a party," said Elise Bittner, a personal chef who launched her company Tetiquette this year. "Modern manners don't need to be stiff or stuffy. Above all, they should help people feel at ease and comfortable around others."
Bittner comes to the home two or three hours before the scheduled tea time and prepares a traditional British service, including scones, finger sandwiches and desserts. It's aimed at kids 5 and older, girls and boys, and the gatherings are meant to be kept relatively intimate, up to 10 guests. The tea itself lasts 1½-2 hours, during which she offers lessons and answers questions.
"This is a great entryway, because there's a lot of finger foods," she said.
That way things can be refined without ever getting too stuffy.
The teas are not about teaching absolutes on using the right fork or folding a napkin properly, Bittner emphasized
"You really think about 'Downton Abbey' and everything being prim and proper," she said. "But today's manners are much more focused — or should be — on making people feel welcome.
"We open with greetings," Bittner said. "How do you start off on the right foot, I guess. And you start to break down those barriers, and a tea party becomes a party of commonalities."
It's more hands-on and practical than the old-school charm classes.
"Everything I try to teach in the lesson, you're going to use at some point during you life," Bittner said. How to give a good handshake. How to thank a host or hostess. How to excuse yourself from the table.
"My favorite exercise, and everybody enjoys it as well, is called 'How to Spit Out Food.' That one is kind of fun," Bittner said. "It really helps break the ice if the kids are a little nervous."
Using jelly beans, she teaches, "how to do it the right way — and not feed it to the dog under the table."
That's a serviceable skill, to be sure, but Bittner thinks there's something about modern times that makes Tetiquette serviceable as well.
"I think it's really hard to have sit-down meals where people aren't rushed," she said. "This is another reason why the tea party ends up being a special event, because it's kind of set apart from the rush. There's something else about tea."
To that end, when the guests arrive they're asked to wash their hands — and give up their phones and other electronic devices.
"That's part of that tea party not being rushed," Bittner added. "That's something that's been lost in today's modern rush. The use of electronic devices all the time," she said, tends to interfere with what she termed "the way to make people feel welcome and engaged and present. If you have your electronic devices, you're missing something."
Older guests are welcome as well.
"Some of the best events are generational," Bittner said, including grandparents or aunts and uncles. "You get a little bit of other people's wisdom, and it gets fun and lively."
In fact, she emphasized, it can be adapted to other events such as bridal showers — not that parents can't use a refresher themselves these days, when small children are typically plopped down at a dinner at a local restaurant with an iPad to entertain them while the adults talk.
"It's even good for adults to have refreshers," Bittner said.
A Tetiquette tea party goes for $1,870.
The way Bittner explained it, it was almost as if she backed into the tea party idea as a personal chef.
"There are a lot of personal chefs who really love to cook, and I love to bake," she said. "And that's really hard to do in someone's house."
Not, however, if it's part of a leisurely tea party.
"I'm hoping parents will be looking for something different and unexpected," Bittner added.
Bittner said she's been busy right out of the gate.
"It's been more of a hit than I expected," she said, although there's been a bit of a lull during spring break season with its staggered weeks off for various city schools.
"I'm actually expecting things to pick up for Mother's Day," she said.
The primary emphasis, she added, is to put everyone at ease — and to show how that's done in small ways.
"Nobody has to be perfect," Bittner said. "It is about making the connections with people across the table from you and knowing enough to have pleasant manners — not perfect, but pleasant."