Part 4: New Blood & New Business


Harney & Sons, Snapple, Upton Tea Imports, International Tea Importers

By James Norwood Pratt

John Harney, then new owner of a minuscule company he re-named Harney & Sons Fine Teas, claims that America’s Tea Renaissance began with the publication of  The Tea Lover’s Treasury and a letter to the editor of the New York Times from Mrs. Elaine Cogan of Portland, Oregon. Mrs. Cogan wrote that she could not get a decent cup of tea anywhere in New York City, because the quality of the tea was so poor and nobody knew how to prepare it properly. In October, 1983, the editor decried this gasping for tea along with pretensions to superior coffee from Mrs. Cogan’s native Northwest with an editorial entitled “Tea Snobs and Coffee Bigots” but included these still-too-true sentiments: “Mrs. Cogan is exactly right about the soggy, grim feeling that overcomes a tea drinker when served a cup of hot water and a tea bag. Besides, in restaurants like that, the water is usually lukewarm. The only thing worse is take-out tea, a styrofoam cup containing a stewed tea bag bobbing in warm iodine.” Armed with Mrs. Cogan’s indictment and with my book for credibility, John Harney landed the Waldorf-Astoria as his first hotel account and began the climb to the eminence his firm presently occupies. The media took serious notice of tea starting only with the success story of Snapple. Snapple was the first “ready-to-drink” (RTD) tea to catch on nation-wide, but the tea itself was secondary to the story of how profitable the company quickly became. It was soon sold for over a billion dollars, back when that was still an impressive figure. At the time of Snapple’s debut the entire US tea market was estimated at 1.3 billion dollars a year. It sounds pretentious even to speak of a “US tea market” before the 1990’s. As herald, Upton Tea Imports was established in 1989 near Boston as a mail-order retailer. Tom Eck had traveled the world in his previous profession as a software engineer and discovered fine tea available everywhere he went except back in the US. He decided to fill this lack, convinced he was not the only American enamored of “specialty tea.” The easy part was his expert’s understanding of how to design and operate systems and enterprises, but Tom also had all the aptitudes and passion needed to become a tea man. Upton Tea Quarterly has been from its first issue the mother of all mail order tea catalogs, making hundreds of selections representing almost all types of tea available to isolated and far-flung customers. Next onto the scene came Devan Shah, exceptional even among the exceptional few. Devan’s school vacations were spent in India’s cool Nilgiri mountains on the tea estate managed by his eldest sister’s husband. After he took his college degree in business he dutifully but swiftly climbed the rungs of the tea profession, starting as an assistant to a south India tea broker. Like many Indian professionals in his mid-20’s, he emigrated to the US where he became an electronics importer. The money was good but it was not the right livelihood for a born tea man. Disregarding warnings from friends and family that Americans simply don’t drink tea, Devan launched India Tea Importers in the conviction he could convert them. He stored the first six chests he imported in his father-in-law’s garage and set about creating markets for tea where there were no markets previously. For instance, no RTD chai existed in the US before Devan---again and again he has played a decisive role in developing America’s tastes in tea.

Look for Part 5 coming October 1st.

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