Twenty years ago Bill Waddington brought a grocery lesson to tea retailing that holds true today.
“I used to say to grocery retailers, ‘The only thing you can do better than the big chains is you can have better quality and you can have better service.’ So I took that mantra to TeaSource when I got into my own company.”
Providing a top product and great customer service are at the core at his Minnesota tea shops that celebrate 20 years in business in September.
“I’ve always viewed the service part of it as the most extreme sample program you can imagine,” Waddington said.
He believes if he can get people to taste his teas they will turn into lifelong customers, so he introduces people to tea in a few ways. His three tea stores offer about 50 workshops per year on subjects such as Tea 101 and Comparative Cupping on Oolongs to Tea and Chocolate. Additionally, Tuesdays and Thursdays are sample days during which people can get a flight of five teas for $4.
But tea retailing wasn’t always Waddington’s focus.
In the 1970s his interest in the plant inspired him to begin researching its origins and the industry on a quest for prizeworthy teas. He got in touch with tea brokers and began forging a web of international connections.
“It’s such a big, vast, deep, broad world,” Waddington said. “The flavor profile is as big as wine. The history is almost as old as wine and I got sucked into the fascinating world of tea.”
His career, though, was serving as as a corporate trainer for a grocery wholesaler and teaching people how to open small, independent grocery stores. In 1998 he decided to combine his tea knowledge and connections with his retail expertise and open his own tea shop, TeaSource. It began in a spare room in his home and now there are three TeaSource locations in Minnesota: St. Paul, St. Anthony Village and Eden Prairie.
Waddington personally sources tea from China, Japan, Taiwan, India and Sri Lanka. He evaluates teas by walking the fields, watching the tea being plucked, visiting the factories and tasting the tea to ensure he always buys high quality. On average, TeaSource carries 200 to 230 teas.
He also treasures the sense of community that has developed. “Tea is about people, it’s not just about the product,” he said. “The beverage provides a bridge for people.”
September’s 20th anniversary events celebrate the quality, knowledge and community that have grown out of TeaSource. Sept. 2, TeaSource kicks off the celebration with a Tea Master’s presentation with Mike Spillane, the owner of G. S. Haley, the oldest family-owned tea company in the Americas. He will conduct a two-hour workshop and a tea tasting. Then, Sept. 8, all three TeaSource locations will play host to parties where customers will receive a free mug of tea and be able to participate in raffles. Waddington created a custom blend from limited-production teas to mark the celebration. More details about events can be found on TeaSource’s website.