For some, the concept of a tea room is high-end and exclusive. But for the Saunders family,
and the grandson who is now carrying on the name and tradition, it’s a symbol of open
welcome. Food, for and from the soul.
In retrospect, Mark Saunders wishes he had asked for and collected the family recipes. But as the youngest of seven siblings, his moments observing his grandmother’s command of the kitchen were usually to dissuade him from mischief. Under her watchful eye, he would be commanded to fetch an ingredient or perform some other small act of assistance while the pots boiled and the oven warmed. Not a punishment, per se, but cooking was definitely not something that commanded his full attention at the time.
Saunders Tea Rom, then located in downtown Newark Delaware, was a modest operation.
Everything about it was homespun: the working-class clientele, the handwritten menus offering
daily specials of whatever was available and prepared. But there was a faithful following.
Mark’s grandmother feeding the patrons; his grandfather as the greeter, waiter, and any other
tasks needed to keep things flowing.
As the elder Saunders moved into their retirement years, the next generation wasn’t interested
in maintaining the brick-and-mortar space. So it closed. And Mark hadn’t yet caught the
That didn’t happen until high school.
In his new ninth grade vocational program, students were offered rotations of a variety of
disciplines to expose them to options for further study. Mark remembers feeling the fire lit
during the culinary rotation, first because the class cooked meals for each other, and everyone
loves to eat. But there was also a connection to the instructor that gave Mark a sense of
purpose and direction. And when it came time to rotate into the next discipline, Mark flat-out
refused to do so. Thankfully, his stubbornness was seen as determination, and the school
decided to bend the rules to allow him to explore his newfound passion.
He continued to explore that passion into the military, a formal culinary program, as a sous
chef, a pastry chef, and then to launching his own personal chef business. Mark enjoyed
Caribbean flavors, so originally his business was named to reflect that style of cuisine. But his
grandparents’ influence came rushing back to him through one particular image of them,
standing in front of the former brick-and-mortar space.
Saunders Tea Room was his legacy.
Mark didn’t have their recipes, but he had muscle memory and taste recall of some of their
best dishes. The taste he could recreate through trial and error. The muscle memory had more
to do with an innovative method his grandfather used to store dry ingredients: used popcorn
Turns out that popcorn tins are not only attractive when lined up on a shelf, but they are also
airtight and spill proof. When Mark decided to purchase a food truck to expand his business,
he found that those tins were durable through the jostling around of travel, and safe enough to
pass state inspection.
With the opening of Wilmington Kitchen Collective, Mark is excited for the additional space and
flexibility to prep his meals. Like his grandparents, when a dish is done, there is no running
back and making more. So additional ovens and prep space means more menu options and a
greater number of portions ready for sale. And knowing his family’s story means that he’s
sensitive to the ups and downs of what it takes to stay afloat as a food entrepreneur, and is
enthusiastic about building relationships with Wilmington Kitchen Collective members as a
mentor and friend.
When Mark says that his grandparents are smiling down on him, he knows that to be true. The
picture of them in front of the original Saunders Tea Room is now the image on the side of his
food truck. And every day he’s out feeding a client, he’s reaching for those popcorn tins in the
Feeding people is love in action.
For more information on the Kitchen Collective’s mission, partner organizations, and other resources, visit them online at www.wilmingtonkitchencollective.com