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 a tealightful 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, just teasing.
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...