by Mike Harney November 22, 2020 6 min read 15 Comments
So, that cuppa delicious Harney tea you’ve come to rely on to get your day started, or power you through it, or relax and unwind with at day’s end… did you ever wonder how it came to be that Harney tea even exists at all?
If so, this is your lucky day. This is the story of how my family got into the tea business. Is there intrigue? Well, not on a Tom Clancy or John Grisham level, but you might be surprised and intrigued by what you learn. So grab your favorite cuppa Harney and get ready for atealightful story!
As you probably know, Harney & Sons Fine Teas was started by our dad, John Harney. Dad was born in Cleveland in 1930. Sadly, his mother died when he was only eight years old; after that, he was shuttled around to live with various family members. (Don’t worry, there’s a happy ending!) It was when he was living at his Uncle Jack’s country inn in Manchester, Vermont, that he met his future wife, Elyse, our mother. Mom pushed him to continue in the hotel business by attending Cornell University’s School of Hotel Management. He finished school and started working at the White Hart Inn in Salisbury, Connecticut. That was 1958.
Even while Dad was busy running the White Hart Inn, he was always keeping his eyes open for other business opportunities. He made the acquaintance of an older British gentleman by the name of Stanley Mason who had retired and started a tea company called Sarum Teas. Stanley persuaded John to start buying his teas to sell at the Inn and, under Stanley’s tutelage, Dad began to learn about teas. Eventually Dad, along with some partners, purchased Sarum Tea Company. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Just kidding. There’s more.
In 1983, the Sarum Tea Company partnership dissolved. While Dad had no sons in the business at the time, he optimistically started Harney & Sons Fine Teas. As everyone knows, every good start-up begins in a garage or a basement; in this case, it was the latter. Large tea chests were lugged down to our family’s basement and packed into tins. Also like every good startup, when the UPS driver came to pick up the tins for delivery, the driver was always chased by Dad’s dogs.
During the White Hart Inn/Sarum Tea Company days, Mom had assisted Dad. When the tea partnership ended in 1983 and Harney & Sons was just getting started, they realized someone needed to make some money. Both in their 50’s, and not particularly flush with cash, they each took a leap: Dad with Harney & Sons, and Mom began her own real estate business, Elyse Harney Real Estate. (The Harney family saves its creativity for naming teas, not businesses.) With five kids and two new businesses, the Harneys were busy. During those years, Mom was the source of family income, while Dad grew the tea business from the basement to where it is today. The End.
Not really, justteasing.
Eventually, my brother Paul and I did fulfill Dad’s vision of “& Sons” by joining the company. Paul was a teenager when Harney & Sons started, so his role was to lug those chests of tea downstairs and to get the dogs under control. After college, he became a Marine Corps officer.
I had been running a hotel in Chicago for several years and wanted another challenge. Also, Brigitte and I had two baby boys, and Chicago was getting to be a difficult place to raise them. So when my dad asked me to join him, I did. I liked the idea of helping him start a beverage business.
There was no full-time employee until I started working with my dad in 1988, and there was no money to pay me the first year. As we grew, we added employees slowly. Our longest tenured employee, Brenda Shadic, started over 25 years ago. And, of course, as we needed more help, we asked my brother to join us, which he did in 1997. (Our sister, Elyse, joined my mom’s real estate company.) Today we have over 210 employees in our Millerton production facilities and our Millerton and Soho stores.
My wife, Brigitte, runs the Millerton shop (we moved our operations to Millerton in 1999). About 13 years ago, we bought an old smokehouse near the old train line to NYC. That building in Millerton became our flagship store. My dad had always been interested in food since his days at the White Hart, and that interest was passed down to his grandson Alex. It was Alex who started serving food in our Millerton shop/café, which turned into a lovely dining spot (before the 2020 pandemic; currently we only serve takeout). In 2010, we took a leap and opened our Soho store, which also features a small café where you can have a Hot Cinnamon Spice latte and a warm scone with clotted cream. Every bit as delicious as it sounds.
From 1983 and the basement of my parents’ house to today, Harney & Sons teas are consumed on all seven continents across the globe-- can you believe it? They even drink Harney & Sons tea at the NASA space station in Antarctica to keep warm. Think about that the next time you want something to warm you up! While my dad was a homebody-- he actually never visited a tea estate-- I liked to travel and since Brigitte is from France, she does as well. Dad had friends who ran international businesses, so it seemed natural to me to look beyond our borders to learn more about teas and develop relationships. Paul has also done that over the years, and now my sons, Emeric and Alex, also get out and about to tea estates around the world.
As you can imagine, we’ve had some amazing experiences since 1983, too many to share them all here. My dad loved to tell stories about how the business grew, like how he was able to get the Ritz Carlton hotels to use our teas, or how Chuck Williams of the Williams-Sonoma stores called Dad to start retailing his teas, or how he’d gotten one of the first toll-free phone numbers (800-TEA-TIME) so people could call in and order tea.
One of my personal favorite stories to tell is about going over to Germany after I joined Harney & Sons to learn about teas from our German tea broker. While there, he told me to only buy teas that made me smile. It sounded like a good plan, and I later discovered the science behind why that works. When I was writing my book,Harney & Sons Guide to Tea, I learned about plant science, and why the tea plant makes its dried leaves so delicious. I learned that the tea plant converts the sun's energy into sugars. So those leaves that had the best care would taste the sweetest. And that brought a smile to my face.
Another valuable lesson I learned came from my dad, of course. He taught me the art of hospitality: that art of making people happy, whether its employees or customers. As he would say, you can always get more with honey than vinegar. And when it comes to what I’ve learned from him and from my own experience of working with my brother and sons, working with family can bring trust, and that’s what is needed. However, the trust needs to be earned, and so that is the challenge for my kids.
Sadly, our dad passed in 2014 at the age of 84. Paul and I are running the company now, along with my sons Emeric and Alex. There was never a day when my sons were not working at Harney & Sons; they have been in this business since they could walk. My brother and I know that our dad would be happy with how the business has grown, how we keep more customers heartened with our teas, and that we kept to his promise of making tea drinking an everyday luxury. Keeping the tradition of tea alive is our multi-generational aim. At the same time, we believe in sharing the benefits both with our employees and outside organizations. Through 1% for the Planet, we are hoping to make the world a better place. And now we have started to actively aid various causes with our valued customers.
Dad would raise a cuppa to the fact that we continue to strive to do well not only for ourselves but for our employees, customers and the world at large. And yes, he would be happy that there is the John Harney Lifetime Achievement Award that we give out every year. You have to be very worthy.
Our hope for the future of this family business is that it will only continue to get bigger and better. And that somewhere at any given moment around the world, some delivery driver with a package of Harney teas is being enthusiastically greeted by a dog.
And that, dear friends, is truly the end. For now...
March 02, 2021
What a beautiful story of your family, and your father the legacy he left your family is so special.
My favorite tea is Chocolate, Chocolate Mint and Florence, obviously I love chocolate, it is like drinking a wonderful desert. It is so wonderful to interact with a great customer service department and yours surpasses any I have dealt with in the pass.
Thank you Harney and Sons, I will keep buying and hopefully family and friends who I have sent your tea will be become good customers like myself. I do not think there could be a finer gift, it is called “A make you feel good gift”.
January 15, 2021
Enjoyed the background story of Harney & Sons!
I truly love how family oriented this company is and how you haven’t been bought out by bigger corporations.
Wanted to share my story of how I came across you guys!
My manager of 3 years was gifted a set of 3 tins of your Hot Cinnamon Sunset tea from her Mother-In-Law. She asked me if I wanted to take home a canister and I immediately fell in love. Finished all 20 sachets in the span of 5 days. I love that the tea is delicious as is, no add ins are necessary. I ended up gifting 3 tins to a few friends, kept one for myself, and got a sampler set for another friend!
Thank you for being an amazing company and I look forward to supporting this business in the long run!
December 28, 2020
I have been drinking Harney tea for so long, I feel like I am part of your family, so I can call you by your first name.
My absolute two favorites are Earl Grey and Paris. But in the afternoon, I frequently have the Cranberry Autumn black tea and I sweeten it with a teaspoon or more if a pot, of a cranberry & orange marmalade from a famous Maine company. I let it steep longer to get a full flavor and then it is heavenly.
Thank you to your father and mother for perservering in the business. And to all the family for giving your tea addict fans years of pleasure and yes, many TEA SMILES.
December 28, 2020
I was introduced to your tea several years ago. I love it and drink it all during the day. My favorite is “Hot Cinnamon Spice Sunset” it’s the decaf. I’m so thankful I found it and I thank you for making it!
December 28, 2020
Enjoyed the Harney story. Your canisters literally fall out of my tea cabinet. I have them double stacked and packed in because each and every flavor is my “favorite” and it would be a pity to run out. Your wonderful teas are a big part of my day. Thank you for the many varieties, excellent service and quality, and fair prices.
November 27, 2020
Hi Mike and Brigitte. I have such fond memories of the tea trip to London. I tell everyone about it. I have held several tea parties myself, and done presentations on tea, and I always serve your teas to introduce people to really good tea. I have a few converts. I am sitting here with a cup of rose scented tea as I read your history. Your tea is such a delight. I start and finish every day with it. (I actually make about 3-4 pots a day.) Thank you for the interesting posts, for the best tea ever, and for making my trip so wonderful.
November 27, 2020
A delightful story, thank you so much for sharing. I love Harney & Sons teas and enjoy a “cuppa” every evening after a long day. Cheers!
November 23, 2020
What a delightful story! Loved reading it. I owned a tea room for 10 years and served about 15 different kinds of your teas. They were everyones favorite. I retired and I still drink your tea. The black currant is my favorite. Blessings to you and your family. Continued success.
November 23, 2020
I was so happy to read your Family Story.With my cuppa Hot Cinnamon Sunset.. It was 6am in the morning…Thanks to The Barney Company
November 23, 2020
Thank you. Loved hearing about your COMPANY..I LOVE FAMILY BUSINESS’S..
MY FATHER HAD FOUR THAT I HELPED IN DURNING HIS LIFE.
HARNEY’S AND SON’S WE ALL THANK YOU.
AHH A NICE CUP OF HERBAL TEA.
OUR CHURCH SAYS NO COFFEE NO TEA NO DRUGS, NO SMOKING…BUT HERBAL IS NOT BREAKING THE WORD OF WISDOM..( LDS) THANKS AGAIN.
November 23, 2020
Your family has given a wonderful blessing to the world. Thank you for sharing this beautiful story and your amazing teas with all of us!
November 23, 2020
I really enjoyed reading Mike Harney Spills The Tea: Harney History by Emeric Harney, what a touching story, it is obvious the entire family is very devoted and passionate about what they do. I am very thankful for Harney & Son’s teas which I drink every day and night and I think they are the best teas in the world. I am so glad to have discovered them several years ago and have been purchased them ever since. So many people I have shared Harney & Son’s teas with are also amazed at just how great a tea can be.
November 23, 2020
Many, many years ago, my wife and I wanted to open our own tea shop and John Harney guided us through our dream with his knowledge and warm personality. We were on the brink of opening a shop in and around the Ridgefield, CT. area when I was called to London to work with a friend (the president of a major retail company) and it was an offer that I couldn’t refuse. I continue to drink, serve and love the Harney & Sons tea Collections – Especially, the Earl Grey Supreme!!!
November 23, 2020
Just enjoyed reading about the background of your family involved business; having had a career in sales myself, it always is a win:win when you treat your customer as you wish to be treated & put yourself “in their shoes”.
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Ruth M Hairston
November 18, 2021
What a delightful tea lovers’ story! My own passionate pursuit of all things tea began around 1994 when I came out of the closet as a tea freak. Some of my favorite vendors were Jackson’s, Grace Rare Teas, Celestial Seasonings, Wedgewood, and most favorite – Sarum Teas! I loved their Black Currant, Choice Spice, and Orange P & P. Around 2010, a friend newly discovering the joys of tea, gifted me a beautiful tin of HT Hot Cinnamon Sunset. The Harney name was new for me; but it was love at first sip! By then, I’d come to appreciate the importance of a great tea tin caddy, and begun collecting the best of those; so yours were among my new favs! It was only this week while inventorying teas, that I discovered several old Sarum tins with loose tea that still retained fragrance! An online query as to what became of that old favorite vendor turned up your blog along with several others. Imagine my surprise and joy to find that my favorite Sarum teas never truly disappeared as I had thought. They’d simply quietly morphed into HT’s hiding out in the prettiest of new tins! Thanks, Mike Harney, for letting the tea out of the bag, or just spilling the tea!!!