From threat of deportation to the third floor of Saks Fifth Avenue
New friends and acquaintances often ask Sharon Moore, owner of Tilly’s Tea Room, if it was always her dream to open a tea shop. Especially when they see how at home she looks sitting on the velvet settee sofa in front of the textured black and white damask wallpaper, or discover how she learned to make clotted cream and jams to accompany scones and fill out cheese boards.
But the start-up story of Tilly’s, named after Moore’s 10-year-old daughter Matilda, actually involves more fight song than fairy tale. In fact, Tilly’s served as Moore’s Hail Mary effort to stay in the United States when faced with a divorce and deportation that would separate her from her U.S.–born children.
A Tale of Two Visas
When Moore, a native of Newcastle, England, came to Indianapolis in 2003, she was married and working as a camera operator with Champ Car World Series, which was eventually merged into the IndyCar series. Later, Moore left her career to have and raise her children, Matilda, now 10, and Max, now 8, both of whom were born in the United States and are U.S. citizens.
A few years later, however, when Moore divorced she no longer had a visa that allowed her to stay and work in the country. After consulting with an immigration attorney, Moore concluded that she had only two options. The first was to return to England for a year, possibly without her children, and reapply for her former work visa. Or she could open a business under an investor visa program.
“But I couldn’t open a TV production company because I didn’t have that type of money to do that,” Moore explains. “So I had to open up a business on a shoestring that would pass immigration standards, have two American employees, allow me to not travel and offer the flexibility I needed to raise a 2-year-old and a 4-year-old.”
Worth the Risk
Moore had always been a foodie, regularly hosting dinner parties for friends and colleagues. She also knew from her own experience how difficult it was to go out to eat or to meet a friend for coffee with young children in tow. So she came up with the idea for a family-friendly café with a playroom for children.
“But I thought, ‘I’m English, so let’s do a tea room.’ But any tea room I’d been to around here was stuck in the Victorian era. I don’t want it to be Victorian-era red and green. If I go home and go to a café, it’s a bit more funky. So I did my research, and that’s what I decided to do,” Moore says.
To apply for the investor visa, Moore had to prove she was committed by plunging into the business plan, financing and health department applications, and even sign the lease to a building before submitting the application. That meant she could sink thousands of dollars and months of planning into the project and still not receive permission from the U.S. government to stay. But it was a risk Moore was willing to take.
“I just decided to go for it, and I said, ‘You know what? If I don’t get the visa and I end up being deported and I don’t have my kids, at least I can look myself in the mirror and say, ‘I fought as hard as I could.’”
With the visa application submitted, Moore forged ahead on Tilly’s Tea Room, with a planned opening on February 24, 2015. She hired a chef and developed a menu with a combination of traditional English and American fare; she signed a lease and built out a proper, yet funky, tearoom on 116th Street in Fishers, Indiana; and she waited for her visa to be approved. Finally, she got the thumbs up from immigration in mid-February, and Tilly’s opened on time with a ribbon cutting by Moore, Tilly and Max.
But even then, Moore didn’t get her fairy-tale ending. Instead, three months into her lease, the landlord sold the building with no option for Moore to stay on under the new owners. Instead, the landlord gave back half the money she’d used to build out Tilly’s, and Moore found herself back to square one, only this time with even less money than she’d started with. When Tilly’s closed for the last time at the Fishers location in February 2016, Moore still had not landed a new permanent home for it. But another opportunity was slowly steeping behind the scenes.
Back in October 2015, the Indianapolis Business Journal reported the sale of the Fishers building and the unknown status of Tilly’s Tea Room. A member of the management team of the local Saks Fifth Avenue saw the article and reached out about the possibility of Moore moving the tea room to the third floor of Saks’ Fashion Mall at Keystone location.
After a few months of communicating with Saks’ New York office, Moore was asked to present Tilly’s to the company’s vice president of leased operations, who flew to Indianapolis for the presentation. For the more elegant setting, Moore pitched a slightly different concept than she’d operated with in Fishers, and eventually Saks extended an invitation to Moore. In Spring 2016, work began on the new Tilly’s Tea Room, and by July of that same year Moore was serving up tea and scones once again, but now with the support of an international retail corporation.
Here to Stay
Talking with Moore over steaming cups of English Breakfast and vanilla tea in her luxurious Saks location, it’s hard to imagine that this business began as a plan B to avoid unimaginable deportation. But somehow, things for Moore seem to have turned out the way they were supposed to.
“People would say to me, ‘Don’t be silly, you’re not from south of the border, you’re not going to get deported.’ Nobody would think I’d have this kind of issue because I’m from England,” Moore says. “But there’s a huge issue. I’d lived in the country since 2003, I’ve worked here, I had a house here, I had a rental property here and I played the game. I wasn’t an illegal immigrant. I worked within the system, and then to have the system fail me so drastically. From my point of view, it was like look, my back was against the wall because of immigration issues, but out of that came something positive.”
Not only did the new location mean that Tilly’s Tea Room was here to stay, Moore seems to be here for good, too. Just days before Tilly’s reopened on the third floor of Saks Fifth Avenue, Moore finally received her green card. In three years, she’ll be eligible to apply for U.S. citizenship. But still, Moore wonders: “If I’d had this green card three months earlier would I have opened this [location at Saks] or would I have just gone and got a ‘normal’ job?”
Thankfully, we’ll never know the answer.
At Tilly’s Tea Room at Saks, guests can find traditional menu items like Afternoon Tea with scones and cucumber sandwiches or more trendy items like avocado toast and cheese boards. Tilly’s has a wide selection of salads, sandwiches and panini, too. And with their large shared event space, Tilly’s also hosts gatherings like baby showers, corporate lunch meetings and even fashion presentations. Plus, Tilly’s offers a few public events, like joining Saks for their Saks Gallery Third Thursday art events, and partnering with Alice’s Table to offer flower-arranging events beginning in September, complete with wine and hors d’oeuvres.
Tilly’s Tea Room at Saks Fifth
Avenue, Third Floor
8701 Keystone Crossing
Originally published at Edible Indy on September 12, 2018. Photos by Lauren McDuffie.