In the business world, converting an enterprising dream into a reality requires hard work, blood, sweat, tears and money.

Laurie Neill was armed with all those critical qualities as she diligently worked to transform the former El Castel Steak House from a long-dormant, dark dungeon into the quaint tea room she had long envisioned. But the renovations were much more onerous, extensive and expensive than first thought.

“The renovations went over budget and exceeded our original estimates,” says Neill, sitting comfortably at a table set with China in what is now the beautifully appointed White Lions Tea House on Westmount Drive. “So, first, I went to the banks and then to the credit unions … they wouldn’t help. When you’re a start-up business and especially if you are a restaurant, you’re considered a high risk.”

And that’s when the Orillia Area Community Development Corporation (CDC) steps into the breach, offering much-needed financial assistance to small businesses.

“We can be more flexible than traditional lending institutions in the types of security we accept and the values assigned to that security,” said Wendy Timpano, the CDC’s general manager, who noted the organization provides loans of up to $250,000 for both existing businesses and start-up businesses.

The CDC’s financing was like a lifeline for Neill. “I don’t know what I would have done without their financial assistance,” Neill says.

Fortified by the financing, Neill was able to complete the renovations and create the environment – comfortable, quaint, bright and welcoming – that she knew a proper tea room required. It was worth the effort; every person who walks through the door comments on the magnificence of the makeover and the aura of the atmosphere.

“People are definitely impressed and like what we have done,” said Neill, who celebrated the two-year anniversary of White Lions Sept. 19.

The renovation, however, was just a starting point. While many people have become ‘regulars’, dropping in for tea and scones or lunch, Neill is not content to rest on her laurels. She has developed a popular catering service whose reputation is growing.

“We have catered business workshops, meetings and many other events,” Neill said. “We make everything from scratch … We can do gluten-free items, non-dairy items … that means a lot to people.”

Neill and her much-loved, hard-working staff are also developing a menu of special events to help introduce more people to the tea room.

“We’ve had very popular Mother’s Day teas and now we’re expanding to hosting bridal and baby showers, birthdays, business meetings, fundraising events. We’re going to host a movie night, featuring an old British film and serve popcorn … the opportunities are limitless,” she says, noting the facility’s party room can accommodate up to 16 people.

In addition, White Lions offers more than 50 different loose-leaf teas which can be enjoyed in the tea room or purchased in larger quantities. She has also recently started stocking ganoderma lucidum, an ancient herb that, according to Chinese medicine, enhances longevity and improves health. “We’re constantly evolving and offering new things,” said Neill, who has also branched out into tea paraphernalia such as tea cozies, cups, tea pots and various other items.

“I would love for anyone who hasn’t been in yet to come in and enjoy our teas, locally roasted coffee, home baking, fresh homemade soups, salads and sandwiches,” said Neill. “It’s a comfortable, charming place to meet your friends.”

The eatery on Westmount Drive in Orillia is open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. Sundays and evenings are available for special event booking. For more information, visit or call 705-259-0568.

The CDC is a federally supported not-for-profit organization, working with community partners to develop and sustain the local economy through: business financing; busi-ness counseling; and community economic development projects. For more information about apply-ing for a loan with the CDC or any of the other programs and initia-tives that the CDC is involved with, please call 705-325-4903 or visit