“Tea is generational,” says Eunice Bigelow. “People remember having tea with their grandmothers, mothers and aunts.” This is especially true of Bigelow Tea Company’s signature blend, Constant Comment, and the three generations of the family who have earned respect as innovators and leaders in the specialty tea industry.
In 1959, David Jr. and his wife, Eunice, took the helm of what was still a small business. As the middle generation, they inherited the single signature blend and a loyal following. It was their legacy to develop products, break new ground on distribution and grow into national marketing. “We’ve lived through the last 60 years as witnesses to huge diversity in the tea industry,” David Bigelow explains. “When we started, there weren’t flavored teas. Before Constant Comment, all that was available was black tea.”
It was at the end of World War II. Shipping had been controlled by the government during the war years and the only tea available was black and strong.
“My mother was an avid tea lover who believed tea lovers wanted something smoother and more flavorful,” Eunice recalls. “She was inspired by a spiced tea recipe that had been popular during Colonial times and worked for weeks to perfect her own blend.”
“It’s a well known story that she shared her tea with a friend whose guests raved with ‘constant comments’. For almost 30 years, this was the only tea product the Bigelow Company sold.
Just out of college in 1948, David Jr. joined the family firm. He stayed for five years until a film career lured him to New York. It was there that he met Eunice. Soon after their marriage in 1959, his parents asked him to return.
“Otherwise they would have sold the company,” says David. “Eunice encouraged me to accept the offer. She reminded me how much I loved the business.”
This was a period of transition from Bigelow’s beginning, selling almost exclusively through gift and gourmet shops to finally claim valuable real estate on grocery store shelves. “It was like breaking the sound barrier,” he says.
Their innovations broke many barriers of great significance for the entire tea industry. In 1974 legal issues over infringement on their label inspired them to add a full line of flavored teas; classics like Plantation Mint, Lemon Lift, Cinnamon Stick and English Teatime. Then, in 1978 they took the enormous financial risk to overwrap individual tea bags. As Eunice Bigelow says, “This freed us from the canisters and opened many other possibilities.”
Multiple blends and overwrap increased functionality for foodservice, providing restaurants with a way to offer a flavor selection of tea in the individually wrapped bags. Without the canisters, they could more easily expand with a line of herbal teas such as Take-A-Break, Early Riser, Feeling Free, responding to customers’ desire for caffeine free teas.
By the 1980’s, the Bigelow Tea Company had gained prominence on grocery store shelves growing their current line to almost hundred different blends. The company now sells 1.6 billion teabags per year in 120 different flavors.
|David and Eunice Tea Tasting|
Quality control and maintaining the integrity of each blend has become an enormous task. Keeping the recipes secure has been possible because of the diligence the family exercises, controlling the blending in their Connecticut facility with Eunice Bigelow still in charge of tasting. “I taste teas every day. Tea is a volatile product. The teas and herbs we blend change with every season. Maintaining our signature flavors is a challenge but that’s what keeps us in business,” she says.
“We love hearing from people all over the world about how they remember growing up with our teas,” Eunice adds.
“My mother would be amazed to know how popular her tea still is, the little tea that she blended in her kitchen in our NY brownstone 66 years ago.” In his book, “My Mother Loved Tea,” David Bigelow credits her with having “. . . changed the way Americans enjoy tea.” The preference for flavored tea continues to fuel the growing culture of tea in the U.S.
The Bigelow family legacy has continued with daughters Cindi and Lori sharing the challenge of a new, more informed customer base and constant demand for new products. They are also very serious about contributing to tea education. At their tea plantation on Wadmalaw Island in South Carolina they have 120 acres planted with 300,000 tea bushes and have built a demonstration plant where guests can view the basics of tea processing, from the leaf to the cup, in an afternoon. They welcome 60,000 visitors each year and produce a limited line of American Classic Tea grown processed on the plantation.
After a lifetime spent in tea, what would David Bigelow have done if he hadn’t returned to work with his parents? “I have no idea. I think I just landed in the right place at the right time. I can’t really imagine anything else.”