Alex Harney Interview
This is file #26, cycle 3. Today’s date is March 14, 2018. This is jean McMillen. I am interviewing Alex Harney of the Harney & Sons Fine Tea Company. He is going to talk about the company, what he had done with the company, tea tasting, tea blending and anything he wants to talk about as long as it relates to tea. First we will start with the genealogical information.
JM:What is your name?
AH:My name is alexander Harney.
JM:When were you born?
AH:I was born on May 28, 1984.
JM:Where were you born?
AH:I was born in Chicago, Illinois.
JM:Your parents’ names?
AH:Michael and Brigitte
JM:You do have siblings?
AH:Yes I have two younger brothers: Emeric and Bertram in that order.
JM:When did you come to this area?
AH:We moved here in 1989.
AH:My father was taking a risk by joining my grandfather in the tea venture.
JM:When did you first start doing something with the tea company as a little child?
AH:My first memory was blending tea with my grandfather. It had to be when they bought the house at 11 East Main Street, Salisbury, That is where my first memories of the tea company really were. I have some vague memories of the other location on Yonder Way, but was really East Main Street where most of my memories were. I was 6 or 7. We were blending Earl Grey. We were soaking the cotton balls with bergamot oil and layering them down in the tea and later take them out again.
JM:It is not the way you do it now though?
AH:It is definitely not the way to do it now.
JM:How do you do it now?
AH:The way we do it now is we still use bergamot oil. For a very long time we still used the same supplier for the bergamot oil that my grandfather used when he first started the company. Now we either spray it manually or through the bigger machine depending on the size of the batch. It is pretty much sprayed as the tea is spun around almost like a clothes dryer.
JM:When did you start helping your mother at Brook Street at the retail store? (See file #23, cycle 3, Brigitte Harney)
AH:I started probably when I was 12.
JM:What did you actually do?
AH:We did tastings, we sold tea and tea accessories. I also did maintenance stuff. I weed whacked the river bank and found out that a lot of that stuff was concrete. I learned a lot of things the hard way.
JM:You said that you were not an expert at gift wrapping.
AH:I would not and I still would not. I would do pretty much everything at the store except for gift wrap. That I would pass off.
JM:At the store on Brook Street did you serve food with the tea or not?
AH:We did not serve food with the tea probably because of space. We always used to have samples of our scone mix out there. That was when food was talked about. That is where it really started but we were not able to follow through until later.
JM:Please explain tea tasting at the store.
AH:At the store you would go in and at the time it was pretty much unlimited as to how many teas you wanted to try to find one that you liked. The idea was that you would try before you buy to make sure you did like what you were going to take home. That was always important. We offered that for free in the first place to the customer. They would come and we would narrow down what they were into or what they wanted to try. We would make recommendations. We would try one or two. We would take a tea scoop, and brew it and then cup it for them and they would try it.
JM:Not all teas are brew for the same length of time?
JM:When you are tasting tea as perhaps a new tea or a new blend of tea as a tea taster professionally, that is different.
AH: That is a little different. It is made a little stronger just so you can get the flavor. The traditional way is to measure it out a dime so it is weighed differently. It is not by volume, it is by weight.
Everything else is the same but usually it results in a bit of a stronger cup so all the hidden flavor and the more subtle flavors are brought up to the fore front. You can taste the nuances better.
JM:In one of your pod casts “As the Tea Steeps” you father was given the compliment that he had very good tasting skills. (See file # 58, cycle 2 Michael Harney).
JM:Is this something that can be developed or is it a gift?
AH:I think it is a little bit of both. Absolutely you can develop taste buds, or at least acknowledge the taste that the taste buds are receiving. But also it does not hurt to have a natural knack to it.
JM:Your dad has the knack.
AH:He has the knack.
JM:When you are tasting tea as an expert, do you as you would with wine smell it in the cup or do you just take it into your mouth>
AH:You actually smell the wet leaves; you smell the cup. You do not smell the liqueur; it is the leaves that you want to smell. The leaves give off a stronger smell. You then take it into your mount, you slurp it to aeriated it and get it to the back of your throat. Most people would swallow, but if you are doing a large amount of tasting, you spit it out.
JM;It sounds as if it were basically the way fine wine is tasted.
JM:When you went over to the Railroad Plaza in Millerton, NY in 2005, is this when the restaurant opened?
JM:At that point you were doing what for food service?
AH:I was just doing sandwiches.
JM:There were 5 basic sandwiches?
AH:Yes there were 5 basic sandwiches all named after family members: Mike, Brigitte, John, Paul and Mimi.
JM:Do you have your own sandwich?
AH:No I still don’t have my own sandwich. I don’t want my own sandwich.
JM:As you have worked over the years and you have had the restaurant for about 12 years, has your menu expanded?
AH:Absolutely. We still offer pretty much the original sandwiches with a couple of new additions every once in a while. I have a tea named after my youngest cousin, Thu and Paul’s daughter Teagan which is a vegan sandwich. The John sandwich is one of the most popular sandwiches on the menu: it is your basic turkey, cheddar and mustard sandwich on whole grain bread. I feel that that sandwich will always stay on the menu.
JM:It is a good wholesome combination.
AH:Yes, it is.
JM:You use the best quality food that you can get.
JM:I have had the Brigitte so I know the sandwiches are good.
AH:I love that one. Those two are the oldest sandwiches on the menu. Now we offer more than just sandwiches because we make our own soups. We have some hot entrees like our curry bowl which is very popular and our sliders which are very popular.
JM:What is a slider?
AH:I still don’t know that the actual definition of a slider is. Irish cooking use sliders. I haven’t really followed up on it, but it is a mini burger. It is a small burger on a baguette bun served with salad and little pickles. It is very popular as well.
JM:You do desserts also?
AH:We do desserts. We have a variety of desserts. The majority is made in house; one is made by my cousin’s grandmother. It is carrot cake by Coco. We have some really nice desserts: chocolate bread pudding, coconut rice pudding which is a vegan dessert. Once you try it you would not believe it. In the rice pudding we use coconut milk which works with the brown rice which is a little healthier and wholesome. That one is actually picking up steam and I was really hoping it would become a lot of people’s favorite dessert.
JM;Do you develop recipes yourself?
AH:Absolutely. Most of the recipes on the main menu were developed by me over the years. The French onion soup recipe was developed by me and everyone loved it. They raved about it which I have to say I agree! I liked it. There is a secret ingredient.
JM:Don’t tell me; that iis going to be a secret for you.
AH:That’s OK I do tell people. It is very good. We use very nice cheese as well. We now offer half sizes of soup which we did not before which is very popular option. Now you can have a soup and sandwich as an order.
JM:It tends in restaurants that the portions are too large.
AH:They were not large to begin with, but the half sandwich and soup is the best size for a lunch.
JM:That is a nice combination which is my favorite. How much staff do you have?
AH:I have 7 staff including myself. In the summer we add 2 or 3 more people just to handle the influx of business.
JM:How many can you seat?
AH:In the winter we can seat about 24 and in the summer that number doubles.
JM:Because you have the outside seating. What are your hours?
AH:On average the café is open from 11 – 4 with the exception of Sundays then it is 11-3 because we are open 7 days a week. It gets tiring.
JM:That is a hard schedule. Did you go to the CIA in Hyde Park, NY?
AH:No but I have had chefs who came in who had done the culinary schools. A good friend of mine who now cooks in Napa went to CIA and he was definitely a big influence on how I cook. I have had cooks who went through different varieties of schools and I have learned from them.
JM:Is it because they worked at the White Hart or other places that you have worked?
AH:Oh no, they came and worked for me. They worked at my restaurant and I would absorb from them.
JM:Learning by doing; that’s the best way.
AH:Lately I have been learning by reading as well. I have a new book that is my favorite on cooking. It makes so much sense based on the other things I have learned from other chefs. It takes into account the science of what is actually happening.
JM:I am just beginning to read James Norwood Pratt’s book The New Tea Lovers Treasury. It is fascinating. I didn’t expect it to be the history of tea and it is very well done. I am enjoying that.
AH:I have not read that book.
JM:You are in a different field. Are your supplies local?
AH:I would say a majority of our suppliers are local. The majority of our produce comes from New York City during the winter. Our greens come from 5 minutes from the store. We try to buy from Judy Schroeder over at Silimar Farms. We do Nodine ham and bacon from Goshen. Our bread comes from Berkshire Mountain Bakery in Housatonic, Mass. I love their sourdough bread.
JM:Do you do trade shows?
AH:I do. I do with my wife usually with my brother and friends do direct consumer shows. Trade shows you deal with wholesale clients, but with direct consumer shows, you are talking directly to the public. That is an area that I feel is important and that is how my grandfather (John Harney Sr.) built the company. He always went directly to the consumer. It may seem a smaller catch at the end of the day. I think that it is just as good if not better because you are developing a relationship with the customer. They now have a face to a company when they never had a face before. In a lot of these cases, return customers are so happy to see us. Now that I have a daughter they are even happier because she is very cute.
JM:Do you travel?
AH:I do travel. I have traveled to India, China, Japan, Sri Lanka, and Thailand, but the majority of my time had been spent in India.
JM:Do you go by yourself?
AH:I have traveled predominantly with my wife. My first rip was to China, Japan, and Taiwan with my father. That was just before I opened the café. I love its influence even though what I wanted to bring didn’t really work here which was to bring the Chinese Teahouse experience here. It kinda did, but it didn’t work. It was not a perfect fit, but there are aspects of it that I brought.
JM:You have to adapt. What do you like best; is it making the food/ is it the customers, or is it the tea company?
AH:I just like making people happy. I feel like I got that from my grandfather. Whether that is through good food, or good customer service or good conversation or the tea, it is hard to pin down what I like best. I do like cooking; I really enjoy cooking.
JM:You have to in order to put in those kinds of hours. Do you have a general manager at the café?
AH:I do. I would say at this point Jackie Brousseaux is my general manager on a day to day basis. she is French Canadian. She has been with us for about 5 years. She had really taken the handle.
JM:What are your future plans for the café?
AH:I would love to see a bigger space for the restaurant, not too much bigger but just a little bit bigger. 10 seats more would be great. It doesn’t need to expand much more but I think it is a good size, but that is probably about it.
JM:It is modest, but it is doable. If you get too big, you might lose the good food, the good customer service, or the good conversation. You don’t want to do that.
AH:I don’t. It is one of the few places where you can get a properly brewed cup of tea and for the most part very good food.
JM:I like a properly brewed cup of tea.
AH:That is the way I feel about steaks done in a restaurant. I want it the way I personally like it. It is not fault of theirs, it is just I know how I like my steak cooked.
JM:Is there anything you want to add to this interview before we close< things that I haven’t covered?
AH:I don’t think so.
JM:Do you want to talk about the pod casts “As the Tea Steeps”?
AH:It has been a really enjoyable project. I think the pod casts have been a great resource even for us as a family. We get the real story down from the people who were there. My grandmother (Elyse Harney) has a fantastic memory. I don’t understand it because my memory as a33 year old is not where near as good. She remembers the most random stories.
JM:You have put out 5 episodes.
AH:There will be a total of 6 for this season. Emeric (See file #27, cycle 3, Emeric Harney)and I have not discussed much what season 2 will be but we do want to make a second season.
JM:Thank you so very much.