The Tins of the Fathers- Harney & Sons

Sitting in the trim dining area of Harney & Sons SoHo on a recent winter morning, 23-year-old Emeric Harney expressed pride in the accomplishments of his grandfather, parents, uncle, and brother, and reflected on how lucky he is to now be a key third-generation member of the company’s management team.

Harney & SonsWhen John Harney, president and founder, now 80, launched the firm in 1983, he must have envisioned a scenario like this, calling his business Harney & Sons — even though, at the time, one of his sons was working in a different industry and another was still a teenager.

That left Harney, at age 53, pretty much all alone at the top of his little enterprise, which operated out of the basement of his upstate New York home. He had worked for others all of his life and felt that it finally was time to run his own show.

Fortunately for Harney, he had worked with good people and learned his lessons well. Going back to 1960, he had been manager of the historic White Hart Inn, a Salisbury, Conn., hotel that dates back to 1800. There, Harney learned the ins and outs of the hospitality industry.

Introduced to Tea

He also met English-born Stanley Mason, the owner of Sarum Tea. Harney soon started buying tea from Sarum and eventually committed to serving only loose leaf tea at the White Hart, a revolutionary idea in late 1960s America.

Then, in 1970, Harney joined Mason at Sarum. The two worked side by side for a decade, until Mason’s death in 1980. Three years later, John started Harney & Sons, and, in tribute to his mentor, added Stanley’s Blend, a mixture of assam and Darjeeling, to his line.

Elaine’s Blend, a combination of Darjeeling, keemun, Ceylon and assam teas, is another shining star in the Harney & Sons line. It is named for its developer, Elaine Cogan of Portland, OR. John recalls Cogan’s scathing early-1980s criticism of the poor quality of New York’s restaurant teas, which appeared in The New York Times. Harney credits that incident with helping to launch America’s tea-drinking revolution.

Five years after the business began John’s son Michael came aboard. The younger Harney, then in his mid-30s and married, came east from Chicago where he had been managing a boutique hotel. Today, at age 55, he heads up the firm’s buying and blending efforts with the able help of his “tasting buddy” Elvira Cardenas.

As time passed, other family members came aboard. Following a stint in the U.S. Marine Corps, Michael’s younger brother Paul joined up, and helped introduce the company to the benefits of tea-packing equipment. His current responsibilities extend to marketing and sales as well.

Michael’s wife Brigitte, Parisian born and raised, brought a continental flair and years of experience in retailing to Harney & Sons. From 1989 on, John, the patriarch, had run a tiny retail operation from the front room of his house. In 1995, with the company occupying a 20,000-square-foot factory, Brigitte commandeered 300 square feet in a corner location and set up the firm’s first real retail shop.

When that proved successful, she physically moved the store out of the factory and into its own 1,000-square-foot space in a storefront location. It remained there for seven years, from 1998 to 2005.

At that point, with Michael and Brigitte’s older son, Alex, coming into the firm, the decision was made to take over a 2,100-square-foot space and to open a café to go along with the store. Alex, who had always been fascinated with food, is now the upstate café manager and menu planner for the company’s foodservice efforts. Today, Brigitte’s role is to supervise all retail operations.

Emeric’s Entry

Harney & SonsEmeric, the second Harney grandchild to enter the business, officially signed on in 2009, although, as he puts it, “I’d been helping out from the time I wasn’t much taller than the counter.”

Over the years, as sales have expanded, the company has moved not only its retail store, but its wholesale operation, into ever larger spaces. Currently, it has 99,000 square feet under roof on a 22-acre campus in Millerton, NY. In addition, there are offices and warehouses in Sarasota, FL, and Las Vegas, NV. And, since November 16, 2010, there is a 2,500-square-foot retail store and café in downtown New York City.

Located at 433 Broome Street, within shouting distance of Broadway, the new SoHo Harney & Sons venture is the brainchild of Emeric, who developed a business plan and convinced the rest of the family that it had merit.

“I had been working as my mother’s assistant, and I realized that many of our clients in Millerton were actually from Manhattan. So many of them had told me they wished we had a store in New York City that I began to believe them.” Millerton is about a two-hour drive from the city, and New Yorkers wanted a Harney & Sons outlet in a more convenient location.

The youngest Harney operative began commuting to Manhattan on an almost daily basis, looking for an appropriate space in which to place the new store. He came close to signing a lease on a number of possible sites, but none was just right. The Broome Street location, on the other hand, is virtually perfect. It is in a highly-trafficked, recently gentrified area, quite close to public transportation, and spacious enough to accommodate Harney & Sons’ broad selection of teas, as well as to create attractive displays of functional and decorative teaware, and to afford café seating for 20 patrons, expandable to 30 at the max.

Emeric, who now lives in Manhattan and manages the SoHo operation on a day-to-day basis, emphasizes the importance of family in this as in every past Harney venture. “My father is at this teahouse almost every Saturday, and my grandfather makes the trip once a month. He conducts tastings and interacts with the customers who delight in his knowledge of tea and tea customs.”

“More than a Store”

The younger Harney says he prefers the term “teahouse” to describe the new location because, as he puts it, “This is more than a store. We don’t just sell tea and teaware. We also have a café, and we are very aggressive in holding tastings where customers can sample esoteric varieties and hone their tea awareness.”Harney & Sons

Emeric strives for a “non-pressured environment where visitors can relax and explore the world of specialty tea. No one hovers over you here, and yet you can get answers to any questions you may have.”

During the author’s visit to the SoHo teahouse, he drank Harney’s Herbal Holiday, a caffeine-free concoction of clove, cinnamon and orange with a rooibos base. And he also sampled Ali San, a Taiwanese oolong that retails for $150 a pound, and is so popular that Harney & Sons was just about to exhaust this year’s supply early in February. What distinguishes the Ali San is a buttery smooth texture that is almost silk-like in the mouth. Emeric says it is grown at 5,000 feet above sea level and is rich in antioxidants and phenols.

Taiwan is just one of many nations from which Harney & Sons purchases teas. Each year, Michael and others make buying trips. “This year,” says Emeric, “the sites include India, China and Taiwan, and I will be going along for the first time.” The plan is to visit 12 plantations in 11 days.  

Tea of the MomentAt both Harney & Sons retail locations—Millerton, NY and lower Manhattan—complimentary tastings are held every day, and more than once a day, with the only rule being one per person.Emeric Harney, who manages the SoHo operations, says, “We also have what we call Tea of the Moment.  On a frequent, but irregular schedule, we pull any one of our hundreds of teas off the shelf and make it available for free tasting. This is the best way we know to introduce our clientele to the immense variety and consistent quality of Harney & Sons tea.”When a tea clicks with a customer, easily affordable sample sizes are available for take-home, generally priced at between $2 and $5, and with enough tea to brew up to five cups.


Michael’s Memories

Looking back on his early days with Harney & Sons, Michael says, “We have always cultivated a tradition of selling good-tasting tea. But in the mid-1980s, there wasn’t very much variety in the marketplace. We had limited choices for where we could buy teas, and our customers had to huddle around a core group of available offerings. It is very different today.”

The SoHo location, for example, boasts hundreds of tins lining both long sidewalls of the retail space. Emeric lists the following among the most popular options from this wide array: Hot Cinnamon Spice; Paris, a flavored bergamot, black currant and vanilla blend; Earl Grey Supreme, similar to regular Earl Grey, but with a stronger bergamot flavor; English Breakfast tea; Holiday, made with cinnamon, clove, orange and black tea; Wedding, which is white tea with vanilla; Bangkok, in which green tea is blended with coconut, ginger and lemongrass; Pomegranate Oolong; Yellow & Blue, an herbal infusion featuring chamomile and lavender; and Tropical Green, green tea with pineapple flavor highlights.

Noting that blends tend to outsell single-origin teas, Emeric proudly relates having created four blends that have become part of the Harney & Sons line. He says, “When I was 17, I developed an apple/cinnamon flavor and also White Christmas, which is made with vanilla, almond and cardamom. In 2010, I suggested Matcha Iri Gemaicha,  a blend of two different green teas. And I am still working on our new SoHo Blend, which features chocolate, coconut and black tea).”

All teas sold by Harney & Sons are the company’s own brands. Tea and foodservice sales account for about 65 percent of total dollar volume, the rest being accessories and books.

Emeric says, “Approximately half of our tea sales come from bagged tea, about 25 percent from bulk tea, and 10 percent from RTD bottled teas. Foodservice is responsible for another 10 percent or so.”

They Can Sell It To You Wholesale In 1983, when Harney & Sons was born, the world of tea was much different from what it is today.John Harney, at 80 still the master blender and brand ambassador, recalls: “China had just opened to western trade, and basic ‘Chinese’ teas like gunpowder, oolong and keemun were still coming from Taiwan. India’s teas were still strongly influenced by the British, so Darjeelings and assams were dark and monotone, just right for milk and sugar. The Indians had only just begun to experiment with changing style of teas to make the teas taste more seasonal and more flavorful. The Japanese kept senchas to themselves. So back in 1983, the tea world did not offer many great teas. And that was fine, because few people drank tea. How that has changed, and for the better.”Harney remembers a call from a stranger named Chuck Williams, owner of what he called cook shops. “Williams-Sonoma is still a valued customer,” he says.At one point, when daughter Lyse was working for the family enterprise during summer vacations from college, she walked into the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel on New York’s Park Avenue and told the manager he should be buying from Harney & Sons. “And they still do,” says John.London’s Dorchester Hotel is another world-famous client. John declares, “We are proud to be the tea suppliers to the hotel that won the UK Tea Council’s Top London Afternoon Tea Award for 2007.” Dorchester Breakfast, carried in the Harney line, is an English-style English Breakfast tea — strong and intended to be drunk with milk and sugar.Of course, celebrity clients alone do not fuel a successful business. Harney & Sons scouts for new customers at the two major Fancy Food Shows each year. In addition, it promotes aggressively and also feeds off the ringing praise heaped on it by a loyal following.

Exports make up about 10 percent of volume, and the company ships to such places as Belgium, the Czech Republic, and — amazingly — to Hong Kong, England and China.

Alan Richman, former editor/associate publisher of Whole Foods Magazine, is now a full-time New Jersey-based freelance writer specializing in coverage of foods and beverages. He can be contacted at