Tea companies face an ever-changing landscape, one influenced by the latest health trends, the expansion of internet sales and competition from small shops and large. Now imagine stewarding a company more than a century old and keeping it relevant and successful. That is exactly what Elliot and Hartley Johnson are doing at Mark T. Wendell Tea Company. Mark T. Wendell Tea Company was founded in 1904 in Boston when Mark T. Wendell took over his uncle’s luxury import business. He imported coffee and rare teas as well as snuff, port and sherry for the moneyed elite in Boston, New York and Philadelphia. Over the ensuing decades, tea became a more prominent part of his business and he introduced the now well-established smoky Chinese tea, Hu-Kwa (Houqua). The Johnsons purchased the company from Wendell’s successor in 1971 and have grown the business from five teas to a roster of 75 in addition to packaged brand names and teaware. In 2009 the company took over the operations for Grace Tea Company as well. Mark T. Wendell Tea and Grace Tea Company are now based in Acton, Massachusetts. World Tea News talked with Hartley Johnson who owns Mark T. Wendell Tea Company with his father. WTN: How would you describe your business? HJ: We currently employ four and occupy a 5,000 square foot warehouse, blending area, shipping/receiving and offices in Acton, Mass. (about 20 miles NW of Boston). A majority of our business is direct to consumer mail order. On a given day, we will ship around 50 packages to customers and stores. WTN: What is your typical customer profile? HJ: They range from our local high school’s "tea club" to the great grandmother who has been drinking her Hu-Kwa tea since she used to purchase it directly from Mr. Wendell himself. A majority of our customers have diverse palates and they are willing to try new teas when we introduce them. WTN: What changes have you had to make to keep your company's profile high enough to compete? HJ: Being a 111 year old tea importer, we rely a great deal on our reputation of longevity, superior teas and excellent customer service. But even so, we have had to adapt. The most important change was to embrace the emerging online ordering medium in the early 2000's. One other change has been to evaluate emerging tea trends and assess their longevity. There is nothing more difficult for an organization than adding new tea products because they are trendy and then be unable to supply them in future years. WTN: Where has the growth been in your company and where do you think the future is leading you? HJ: The growth has been mostly through our wholesale division's loose tea sales. By expanding our presence through our wholesale website we have found sales catering to emerging tea businesses that might only need a few pounds of tea. WTN: What is the biggest change that has affected the tea business and your work in it over the past 15 years? HJ: My father, Elliot, bought the Mark T. Wendell Tea Company with his brother Alan back in 1971. For him, the world of specialty teas has expanded beyond comprehension. I have been involved in the business my whole life, but started "working" with my dad in 1999. Since then, I would say that the biggest change is the regulations imposed on tea exporting and importing by the origin countries and the United States. They are necessary in this day and age, but it slows down the shipment times tremendously. This can make keeping the warehouse stocked a real adventure.
Mark T. Wendell: 100 Years of Tea
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