PARK SLOPE — The beloved Tea Lounge cafe is dead, but its spirit could live on in a new neighborhood hangout that two regulars want to open in the space.
Two longtime Tea Lounge customers are in talks with the building's landlord to take over the business and reopen it as an establishment tentatively called The Park Slope Meeting House. Landlord Harold Dixon says he's on board with the idea, but he said nothing can be finalized until the Tea Lounge's current owner hands over the keys later this week.
"I love the place and I wanted to see it stay alive," Dixon said. "All of Park Slope is going to miss it. It was special."
Entrepreneurs Shaya Weisfeld and Steven Stromer say they want to revive the Tea Lounge's unique sense of community with their new venture, which would include a co-working component and could eventually blossom into a full-fledged community center. They hatched their plan in the hours and days following the news that the Tea Lounge was closing abruptly after 14 years in business.
The closure devastated legions of freelancers and mommy group members who've used the sprawling cafe as a public living room and office, and musicians mourned the loss of another performance space and open mic night.
Weisfeld, who's been a regular at the Tea Lounge for a decade, wants The Park Slope Meeting House to welcome a mix of people and serve a variety of functions: Business people could hold meetings, students could study and parents could work while their kids are occupied at a concert or other activity in the space.
"We want to make a place that’s a cross-cultural place,” Weisfeld said. “I’m not talking about just racially, but people on different steps of the economic ladder and at different phases in their careers and people from different creative fields. We want a place where people can mesh.”
Weisfeld is an entrepreneur who specializes in launching businesses, including a diamond buying firm, a luxury watch importer, an electronic payments company and a garbage business. He doesn't have experience running a cafe, but he has worked with supermarkets and describes himself as an "obsessive coffee shop patron." Stromer is an IT consultant with a background in design who dabbles in astronomy.
Stromer, a Park Slope resident, was a such a regular at the Tea Lounge that the cafe named a non-alcoholic drink after his 3-year-old son, Julian. He envisions The Park Slope Meeting House as a place that will serve people who work outside of an office and blend their personal and professional lives. The new iteration of the space would serve "delicious" food and drink, but that would be secondary to its mission of bringing people together and creating a venue for exchanging ideas and information, Stromer said.
“The challenge is going to be to keep all the people that love it now and invite all the people who migrated away,” Stromer said. “The neighborhood has changed and people’s expectations have changed.”
Stromer and Weisfeld say they want the new space to have a co-working service where paying members could leave belongings in cubbies, use resources like color printers and share files on a computer network. If they succeed, there is space available on the building's upper floors where they could expand into a "genuine full-fledged community center," Stromer said.
Stromer and Weisfeld met over the weekend with Dixon, and came armed with more than 500 signatures they had collected in support of their new venture. Petition signers pledged to help the new business — most importantly by spending their money there.
Though many assumed the Tea Lounge closed because the landlord jacked up the rent, that was not the case. Dixon, the landlord, said he knocked $500 off the monthly rent of about $9,500 to help Tea Lounge owner Jonathan Spiel stay afloat.
Dixon, who has owned Dixon's Bike Shop down the block for 45 years and lived in Park Slope since the 1960s, said he shared locals' heartbreak over the demise of the Tea Lounge.
He described the cafe as a "home away from home" for scores of locals. That comfy atmosphere could have contributed to its financial woes, because customers tended to linger for hours while buying just a single cup of coffee, and the Tea Lounge didn't make customers pay for Internet usage or charge a cover for live music, Dixon said.
Weisfeld said he's prepared to personally invest in keeping the space afloat "for years" and that he and Stromer have already started spending money on hiring people to help with menu ideas and design suggestions.
"I know it won't be easy," Weisfeld said. "I know I could do it and I know this community needs it."
Meanwhile, Spiel, Tea Lounge's owner, and his wife Helen worked on Monday to clear out the coffee shop, tossing out some things and preparing to sell other items — including the cafe's dozen couches — at a public auction on Wednesday at 2:30 p.m.
Helen Spiel said she was touched that Tea Lounge customers were trying to maintain a coffee shop in the space, and called the effort a testament to Park Slope's heartfelt feelings about the cafe.
But she cautioned that it would take more than positive thinking to keep a coffee shop going there.
"It's so much more than paying rent," she said of running the business. "What I hope they take into consideration is that my husband has been doing this 14 years and couldn't survive. He put his heart and soul into it. It is really difficult."
Of the new venture, she said, "I wish them nothing but luck."