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Pouring on the British charm

Santa Monica's Tudor House opens its tearoom to private parties and film crews to draw new customers and offset rising costs.

May 19, 2008|Tiffany Hsu | Times Staff Writer

All Alan Crump wanted were some authentic British pickled onions.

But the "dyed-in-the-wool Englishman," who keeps a beefeater doll in his Westchester living room, had no luck finding British comfort food in the U.S. And the Manchester native was tired of knockoffs, which he had endured since moving to Los Angeles in 1957.

So in 1959, Crump began importing bottles of onions, followed by jams, puddings and OXO gravy mix. Three years later, he and his wife, Joan, opened the Tudor House, a British grocery crammed between a dry cleaner and the Mucky Duck pub in Santa Monica.

The Mucky Duck is long gone, as are several other shops that once formed a bustling British business district. The Tudor, as its loyal customers call it, now operates on 2nd Street near the London Travel Center, in the small cluster of British shops that has survived challenges bigger than procuring pickled vegetables.

Costs are rising because of stringent health codes, high rents, swelling shipping fees and the British pound's trouncing of the U.S. dollar.

And there are only so many homesick Brits to go around. According to the Census Bureau, 4.7% of Santa Monica residents -- or 3,923 people -- in 1969 were English. In 2000, the number fell to 1,807 British immigrants, or 2.1% of the city's population.

Such stresses have forced British stores to work extra hard at attracting young, American customers or face closure, said John Gordon, manager of the nearby Ye Olde King's Head pub for 33 years.

At the Tudor, the sagging economy has been weighing on the current owners, English natives and Playa del Rey residents Teresa, 61, and Stephen Dulley, 60. (Alan and Joan Crump, now 81 and 78, sold the business in 1980; the Dulleys bought it in 1999.)

With the dollar performing weakly abroad, the Dulleys have had to bump up prices to continue importing goods.

And they have had to begin paying large distributors to bring their products into the U.S. since post-9/11 buyer hazard laws made direct shipping nearly impossible for small businesses.

The regulations, which Teresa Dulley called "very fussy," require each imported item to be checked and approved by manufacturers, U.S. Customs and the Food and Drug Administration and then assigned a tracking number. FDA inspectors have come into the shop on occasion to remove products that accidentally slipped through, such as some items that include food dye or meat, Dulley said.

Increasingly expensive and scarce real estate in Santa Monica has prevented the Tudor from expanding, Dulley said.

To fill the financial gap, the couple have opened the tearoom for private parties and tried to raise the shop's profile by allowing film cameras to use the interior as a go-to British backdrop.

In March, a crew filmed a segment for the Lifetime reality show "Your Mama Don't Dance" in the tearoom. When Queen Elizabeth II visited the U.S. last year, a BBC reporter sought out the Tudor.

"Apparently, I was on breakfast TV in Britain," Dulley said. "It's easier to come here to us than to fly to London since we're so quintessentially English."

An intense dedication to authenticity is key to the Tudor's appeal, Dulley said.

The intimate business, with just nine employees, includes a bakery and gift shop filled with Colman's condiments, Cadbury candies and other British specialties.

The bakery produces hot cross buns for Easter and mince pies for Christmas. The staff has been laden with expats since the Crumps hired a local British butcher to make traditional sausages.

After a state employment agency failed to turn up American bakers who could make Eccles cakes, scones or Chelsea buns, Crump recruited three bakers from Britain, including one from the town of Eccles whose photo was hung in the shop after he died.

Sometimes, however, the Tudor skews American. One chef was trained at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco but still pulls off convincingly British dishes, Dulley said.

But she might be biased. The chef is her American-born son, Brendan, 24. The couple's three other children have also worked at the Tudor.

The family atmosphere has helped the shop become a favorite of homesick Brits and British-inclined Americans over its nearly 50 years.

Patrons who dined in the tearoom as children now bring their grandchildren, who sit in Windsor chairs drinking Victoria tea out of Blue Willow china.

Susan Rubinyi, a writer and West L.A. resident, said her family had visited the Tudor for decades. She lived in Europe for years and traveled extensively in Britain, where she often visited tearooms.

But "I like the Tudor House better," she said. To Rubinyi, the Yorkshire Gold tea and dessert scones that are her favorites at the Tudor are unique in all of Los Angeles.

"The Tudor House has preserved some of the best parts of the U.K," she said. "In fact, even in the U.K., you'd be hard-pressed to find some of the things you can find here. You always come out in a better mood."

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