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TeaSource

TeaSource: The First Store

The first TeaSource shirt.

Front and back of the shirt.

This shirt was given to me by colleagues when I quit the corporate world. 

Most of my colleagues knew of my checkered and varied work history and my search to find a calling that satisfied and fulfilled me.

My mother saw it differently, having said to me on numerous occasions, “Can’t you hold a job?”  Eventually I found a job that I wanted to hold for a long time: TeaSource.

The last career I had before TeaSource was in the wholesale grocery business; training independent grocers (mostly family owned single store operators or very small regional grocery chains) how to open grocery stores, and how to operate their stores and their business more effectively. 

As I got more and more into the world of tea, it occurred to me that what I was doing for the past 8 years with grocery retailers was the perfect training ground for opening a retail specialty tea store.

So, as I approached my forties, I started thinking about how cool it would be to have a tea business. 

For more than 20 years I had been fascinated, perhaps even obsessed by tea. One of my previous careers had been as a librarian at Northwestern University in Evanston, IL, where I had learned how to do serious academic research. So for a long time I had been researching everything I could about tea.

I started TeaSource in a spare bedroom and a tiny bit of packing space in a food warehouse in NE Minneapolis, MN. I ran it solely as a mail order catalog (I produced the catalog myself at Kinkos), sold tea to family and friends, and did lots of tea tasting around the Twin Cities; kitchen stores, specialty food stores etc. I sold packages of tea along the way. 

One of the early TeaSource catalogs.

After a year of doing this while still working my full-time career, I realized that “this tea thing” (as some friends referred to it) was either the most time consuming hobby ever imagined or I should just quit my career and jump into the world of tea full bore. 

I knew one thing with certainty; I wasn’t going to get braver as I got older. 

So I found an empty retail space in the Highland Park neighborhood of St Paul. I signed a lease, turned in my 30 days notice, and embarked on the 3rd scariest thing I have ever done.

Highland Park TeaSource location on south Cleveland Ave.

I did most of the remodeling work myself (except for the electric and the cabinetry - those areas actually require a high level of skill). I was pinching pennies. My operating budget was my life savings and my retirement fund. So (with a little help from my friends) I did the demo, the drywall, the construction, the flooring, the painting, etc. We had a crazy 75 days of dust, demolition, and exhaustion. 

Highland Park TeaSource store on July, 1998, fifty days to Grand Opening.

Many thanks to Steve S., John W., Greg P., Jim G., Beth A., Kit C., Keith W., Kathy W., Sean D., Megan D., and anyone else I am missing.

Our grand opening was Sept. 5th, 1998. 

Highland Park TeaSource, the early days. Hanging the ceiling over the counter was a piece of cake...not! And yes, I did make those copper-topped tables.

TeaSource in Highland, circa 2002. Remember those tea chests lids on the wall? 

My wife Liz has been unbelievably supportive throughout this whole journey, even pre-TeaSource when I was taking over whole kitchen cabinets with strange tea packages and tea paraphernalia. From the moment I told her I was thinking of quitting my career and opening a tea business up through this year when we have been incredibly busy dealing with new federal laws and regulations impacting our business, she has been behind me.

Patience, support, flexibility, and creativity have been among the gifts she has given me. She’s been amazing. 

The first couple of years were rough. Most folks had never heard of a tea store before. So that meant lots of education, proselytizing, sampling, etc. was necessary. Initially, I had one employee besides myself, Jen H. She was there during construction and for many years afterward and was key to getting TeaSource integrated into the neighborhood.

We had a number of colleges nearby so we employed lots of students in the early years. We have always been really lucky to have great employees, many of whom have been with us long-term.

We do tend to start them off young. 

 

Circa 2003, my daughter Mag surveying her domain. 

Remember my little wall of tea chests? Today wooden tea chests are no more.  They are just a part of tea history. 

In addition to the challenges, there were also a lot of successes, acceptance, and love shown to TeaSource in the first couple of years. 

Thanks to the many, many people, staff, suppliers, neighbors, family, and customers who survived those first 2-3 years and began to establish a tea foothold in the Twin Cites, providing a solid foundation from which to spread our message. 

Bill Waddington

Tea Merchant

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