Welcome to our third year of the “Ask Mike Anything” blog, where I sit down and answer your questions. This year, in honor of Harney & Sons Fine Teas's 40th anniversary, we decided to have me answer questions about our first 40 years. I think it was mostly a test to see if Paul and I have the same answers! So, welcome to our 40th-anniversary version of Ask Mike (and Paul) Anything.
Q: So, this year was Harney & Sons Fine Teas 40th anniversary. Tell us how your dad got started in the tea business.
MH: John Harney was managing a country inn in Salisbury, CT: The White Hart Inn. There was an old British tea man who lived in the area, and he talked my father into offering loose teas in the restaurant. John learned much about tea from that tea man, Stanley Mason. Several years later, John went on his own and started Harney & Sons Fine Teas.
Q: Why did your dad choose to name the company Harney & Sons Fine Teas rather than just Harney Fine Teas? Did he have any idea that two of his sons, and then two grandsons, would end up being part of the family business? Or was it just wishful thinking?
MH: I think it was wishful thinking on his part. I was running a hotel in Chicago 40 years ago and had no children. Paul was in high school.
PH: Dad was an optimist by nature. And it’s got a better ring to it! Harney Tea might not be so exciting…Harney & Sons kinda rolls off the tongue!
Q: What were the first teas Harney carried? Where did John source them?
MH: There were just six teas that Stanley had helped John source: Earl Grey, English Breakfast, Darjeeling, Formosa Oolong, Gunpowder, and Irish Breakfast. Stanley introduced John to an American tea supplier: Bill McMelville of Foremost Friedman. We still have his tasting table in the front of the factory.
Q: How quickly did the company grow? Was there one big event or decision that caused the company to go from being run out of your family’s basement to a larger business with employees, a warehouse, etc.?
MH: Paul, when you were first working for Dad, did he pay you?
PH: No, he didn’t pay me.
MH: He didn’t pay me for the first year, either! There wasn’t a lot of business in the early days.
PH: No, there wasn’t a lot of business in the early days, and it was a long, slow climb out.
MH: When I joined in 1988, they were still working out of the garage of the family house. Quickly, we moved to the current house my mom still lives in. We continued to grow, so we thought of expanding on that land. Luckily, the local authorities did not allow it. So we moved to a series of garages in nearby Lakeville. When we outgrew that, we bought a neighboring house. That is where the first retail shop was launched.
Williams Sonoma and the Ritz-Carlton hotels kept giving us more business. So we decided to move to a larger space in Millerton, NY, just five minutes away. Barnes & Noble bookstores switched to us, so we needed more and more space – we bought the current headquarters in 2003. Originally we only filled half of the building and just used the empty space as a skateboard area!
We had the opportunity to buy the building that is the current tea shop about 14 years ago, and Brigitte made that into a delightful and elegant store. Then Emeric developed the SoHo store on Broome Street about 12 years ago. I felt that we needed a NYC presence, a flagship store.
Paul had long thought that ready-to-drink tea in bottles was a great opportunity; he had seen the success of Honest Tea and thought he could do better. So, eight years ago, we bought a place up in Hudson, NY (about 45 minutes away). Paul installed the complex bottling machinery (learning all the way), and now that is a success.
PH: A friend told us about the opportunity of industrial hemp. It was newly legalized, and there was “money in dem hills.” So we started The Hemp Division about five years ago, growing our own hemp and creating all-natural, from-the-roots-up CBD products. We are still looking for the gold, but it has been a lot of fun.
MH: We have close to 300 employees. Many have worked more than 15 years at Harney & Sons. We have seen them as they go through their lives and are happy that we can help them. Of course, they help us and you!
Our future looks bright, even as the tea business gets to be difficult for many of the actors.
Q: What was the first tea that your dad blended? What was the first tea each of you blended?
MH: I would have to say that Palm Court is the first tea that my dad blended. That was for the Plaza Hotel almost 40 years ago. Do you remember what your first tea was, Paul?
PH: Supreme Breakfast was the first tea I think I blended. What about you, Mike?
MH: Unfortunately, I can not remember my first tea. But I’m a lot older than you, and I’ve been doing this for more than 30 years.
Q: How many teas does Harney carry now?
MH: We used to say that we offered 300 teas, but I think a more accurate estimate would be 500 teas. So many!
PH: We can’t seem to kill a tea! The list does not shrink.
MH: Everybody has something they like.
Q: What are the pros and cons of running a family business and working with a sibling, wife, and sons/nephews?
MH: Well, working with family can be challenging, but it has been rewarding. Everyone has a different take on life and business. That allows us to offer many options to our customers, so someone might like what teas I create and source, and someone else might like what Emeric brings in. All of us are bound by the same core principles of great teas, pleasant packaging, and hospitable service. Of course, sometimes we grate on each other, but that does not happen that often.
PH: It’s a lot of fun to have a family business. I’d recommend it highly to anyone who has a family and a business idea!
Q: What legacy did John pass on to you and Paul? Is there a strong stamp of your dad’s entrepreneurial spirit or personality that has shaped the company?
MH: Dad said that he wanted to make tea an everyday luxury. And that any tea company could buy great-tasting teas, they just don’t. Also, persistence is a great virtue. And to treat employees like they were family. So, that is what our core values are.
PH: I have a letter to Dad in my office from a guy he kept calling at St. Paul Hotel, Minnesota. He wrote, “Thank you for all your persistence.” Pops did not ever give up, he was a bulldog. I think that’s something that we learned from both our parents. Persistence is something that you’re certainly going to need if you’re going to have an entrepreneurial business.
MH: And you have to treat the employees like family.
Q: What legacy would you like to pass on to your sons and the company?
MH: I would say I will pass on down what my dad did for me. It seems to me that it will allow them to adjust to changing times.
Q: What would surprise your dad the most about Harney & Sons Fine Teas today?
MH: I think he would be happily surprised by how busy we are and how big we are; the company is more than double the size than when he left us. He would be happy to see some of the same smiling faces.
PH: Absolutely, he loved all the employees and would love to see a lot of them are still around. I think he had a great belief in the business so he probably wouldn’t be surprised, but he would be happy to see that we’ve kept going in the direction that he set off in.
MH: We do keep his office open in case he wants to come back.
Q: What makes Harney different from the competition? Why should someone feel good about choosing Harney teas?
MH: Like my dad said: We buy good tea – no one else does. Treat customers with respect. Buy teas that make you smile. Those are a few of the reasons we continue to grow.
PH: We put our heart and soul into buying teas that make you smile.
Q: What does the future hold for Harney? What would you like to see stay the same, and what would you like to see be different? Or think will be different?
MH: We plan to keep mostly in the tea business. Of course, there will be a few non-tea ventures, but we love tea. There are still many people who have not chosen Harney & Sons, so opportunity is everywhere. The past has been fun, and we are surprised at our successes. We humbly will work to make the future even brighter.
PH: It’s a mine that’s still out there, and we’ve got some untapped veins that we don’t even know where they are yet. It’s hard to see, hard to predict. But we’re excited to find out and keep rolling.
We’ll keep making teas that make you smile as long as you keep drinking them! Thank you for your support, whether you’re new to our teas or have been around as long as we have. Cheers!
If you’d like to see Mike & Paul’s video version of this dive into the 40th anniversary of Harney & Sons, scroll to the bottom of this blog (stopping to see the great pics, of course!) to watch their conversation.