Brigitte Harney Interview
This is file #23, cycle 3. Today’s date is February 20, 2018. This is Jean McMillen. I am interviewing Mrs. Brigitte Harney who is going to talk about the beginnings of the Harney Tea company retail shop and anything else she wants to talk about. First we’ll start with the genealogical information.
JM:What is your name?
JM:what is your birthdate?
BH:Oct. 25, 1957
JM:Where were you born?
BH:I was born in Suresnes, France.
JM:Your parents’ names?
BH:Claude and Edith Guillot
JM:Do you have siblings?
BH:I do have a brother Pierre-Regis.
JM:How did you come to this area?
BH:I came to visit friends of my parents that had bought a house.
JM:that would have been about 1977?
JM:Were you here as a tourist or on a student visa?
BH:No I first came as an au pair.
JM:I know John Harney Sr. started the Harney Tea Co. How soon did you start doing the retail c shop? That was first over at 11 East Main Street house.
BH:Harney and Son Tea Company started in 1983. Michael and our two oldest kids came in 1988. (See file #58, cycle 2, Michael Harney) The retail shop slowly evolved when they moved into the little space across from the White Hart. It was very small. Then we moved to Brook Street. I don’t remember when we moved to Brook Street. (See file # 68, cycle 2, Paul Harney) We had a bigger space for retail.
JM:There were two locations on Brook Street.
BH:Yes there was #11 and the other one was #14. In the 14 one that was the first official retail shop.
JM:Was it just tea?
BH:Yes it was just the tea tasting. It was very small compared to what we have now. We had tea and tea pots and some food.
JM:More like finger food to go with the tea?
BH:Yeah, lemon curd, clotted cream.
JM:You said that there were about 50 teas that you were offering at that time.
BH:Pretty much yeah.
JM;When did you move to the Railroad Plaza in Millerton, NY?
JM:That was a much bigger space.
BH:That was gigantic. We were fortunate to have part of 2 big garages at #14. Then we moved across the street where dotty smith used to be. That was bigger, but it was just OK. When we moved to the Railroad Plaza, it was a huge expansion. It was a former restaurant. (MacArthur’s Ed.) It was an interesting layout, the space for the tasting and the retail and where to put the restaurant. It was nerve-wracking, but it was for the best. Where we were on Brook Street, it was hard for people to remember to stop and to find us, for that matter.
JM:Where you are in Millerton, you are on a main road with easy access.
BH:There is much to do when they come to visit us which is good for the area as well. We are a good anchor.
JM:Did the restaurant come shortly after?
BH:Yes about 6 months; then it was just sandwiches in the beginning. Then we started preparing food; we expanded the kitchen to a better kitchen with a cook top and a range. Now we do full lunches for a small number of seats.
BH:It is better in the summer as you can seat the people outside.
JM:Did Alex (her son) join at that time or did he come later?
BH:Alex joined us at that time.
JM:Would that have been around 2010?3.
BH:He was actually my first Sunday employee when we were on Brook Street. He helped me with the retail shop on Sundays because he was in high school at the time. That is when he started to work, but it was obviously part -time.
BH:Then in 2005 he took over the little restaurant as his project.
JM:With the food service you started with sandwiches and now you have expanded it. Do you do just lunch?
BH:We do just lunch and no alcohol. It is 7 days a week and we do late afternoon tea, but we close at 5. If people come for tea at 4:30, it is a little rushed.
JM:The English do tea at 4.
BH:that is why I chose 4 for tea, then you have one hour to linger. The cooking in the kitchen closes at 4, but tea and scones are available.
BH:The scones are done ahead.
JM:What are your hours for the restaurant?
BH:The restaurant is open for lunch 11-4 every day except Sunday. On Sunday 11-3 we are open for brunch.
JM:How about the retail shop?
BH:Every day from 10 -5, but Sunday is 10 to 4. Some people think we should be open longer, but the business is on the weekends.
JM:You have to have a life!
BH:Exactly and most people work the two days on the weekend. I can’t do longer hours.
JM:It is not fair to anybody to work like that; you need time for yourself.
BH:I agree, but we are open 7 days a week at it is. It is not easy to find good people to work in this area. The employees come first and then the customers.
JM:If you don’t have good long-term employees, and you have a fast turnover, it is not good for business.
JM:I like what you are doing. I thought your retail shop was so interesting because there were such a variety of things.
BH:I have expanded, yes. I am big stationery lover and write notes with my cup of tea. At one time we were a one stop shop, but now there is another gift shop nearby. I now have to watch what I buy. Will it work? I don’t want to buy too much of the same.
JM:Where do you get your stock?
BH:I go to trade shows, and sales reps come to me. I have to really like the sales rep to buy from him. I like to know the sources at the shows. When we travel it is hard to source. When we went to India we didn’t go to places where I could do that anyway. We just went to tea plantations, maybe next time.
JM:Do you try to use local people for gift items?
BH:We tried some pottery from local potters. The problem is that people say they do not want to buy anything from China, but local ware is a little bit more expensive? They look at it and put it right back down. There is a woman in Sharon who does beautiful pottery; we have some of that. We ended up sending her a customer because she wanted more than I had on offer. There is a guy from Gt. Barrington who is a beautiful potter; he also wants more money for his wares. We do local jams and honeys. We live in the tri-state area so we can work with three states.
JM:How many staff do you have in the restaurant?
BH:Oh my dear. The overhead is high for the number of seat we have. We have I think 5 or 6 staff.
JM:How about in the retail shop?
BH:About the same. That covers the tasting room as well.
JM:In the tasting room is the person there specially trained for that?
BH:Yeah. They learn on their own, especially on the job. They learn how to understand tea tasting.
JM:Do they come already trained or do you train them?
BH:No we train them. I train less because we have a wonderful young man that trains them so I can leave it up to him. He is very knowledgeable. He is passionate. He goes beyond the basics; he is excellent. There was an article in a retail magazine that the business is changing because of the on-line business. That is why you need passion in order to sell. People will come to you if you have the passion for what you do not just because there is your phone number on your website on your computer.
JM:You have to have something that attracts people to actually walk in to the store.
BH:Or drive one hour. You can pick up the phone or go on your computer and the next day delivery. Why bother driving?
JM:The internet has changed a lot!
BH:Oh my gosh, shopping has changed like everything else.
JM;I still like to go to touch, and taste and smell.
BH:Oh I agree. Me too. I am old school. I think the millennials are a little different. They form a little band around you and there is more of that. That is ok. Technology is great but you want other things. I have books on kindle on my phone, but it is not the same as having a real book in your hands where you can turn the pages. Things will calm down a little bit; I hope so.
JM:Things work in cycles.
JM:You have been over there for a number of years. People know you and your advertising is wonderful so you are a known brand which makes a lot of difference.
JM:One of the things that pleased me when I was interviewing both Michael and Paul was that you hire locally. You are one of the largest employers in the area. That is good to know. You are good to your people. I have talked to some of your staff.
In the tea tasting, if I came in and wanted to taste tea, do you have a limit on how many teas I can sample?
BH:Now we offer 2 teas to taste during the week. We can do one tea from the wall. If it is not busy we can do a tea tasting for people who like to compare teas. We might charge for the extra tasting, we might do that. But on the weekends it is crazy. This past weekend was President’s Day Weekend and we were packed. If people had wanted to do tasting it would have been really hard to accommodate them in order to keep up with our dishes. We want to serve the tea properly in a porcelain cup. When you did the tasting, did they do that?
BH:It takes a lot of time, preparation, cleaning; with a lot of people it can get a little intense.
JM:It was a very pleasant experience. It was done properly with a cup and a very knowledgeable young lady from India. My step-son is a tea aficionado and he really enjoyed the whole experience.
BH:With tea tasting it is all about the experience. We serve them with a little bamboo tray. When you go to Asia or Japan, with the tea service they take care of you, they serve you. It is nice feeling.
JM:They do the same in England with all the accessories, the 2 kinds of sugar, a pot of hot water, a pot of hot milk and of course the pot of tea all served on a large tray. That is lovely as you have a beautiful cup and a fragrant tea. It is just a whole sensory experience.
I think you said at first with the tea tasting it was totally free and unlimited.
BH:At first it was but as we got busier people were coming with friends and it became harder to do because everyone wanted a cup to taste it became so busy that there was no way to do it properly. Space is a problem as well as supplies.
JM:Tea is more expensive than it used to be. It works better with one or two tastings.
BH:I know that people have mentioned that they wish we did more special classes, a smaller class to teach them about teas and tasting. We are trying to figure a way to offer that to a smaller group. We have to figure out the logistics of that.
JM:You used to do a Christmas Tea at the Wake Robin. It was a high tea with tiny sandwiches and small cakes and other finger food and of course Harney tea. It was sponsored by the Harney Tea Company. This would have been back in 2007 or 08 maybe?
BH:I don’t remember that; maybe the boys did that.
JM:When you buy tea do you travel to India and Japan or do you send Paul?
BH:I don’t send anybody!
JM:I had Paul in fourth grade, I can send him!
BH:When John Sr. started the business in 1988, they came to him. He didn’t travel. Then he realized that the offering was limited so he decided that Michael really liked to travel and discover things so he went to China by himself. When he came back, his eyes were wide open. Oh my gosh, there is so much there. We decided to bring teas from china to offer more unusual teas, some no one has ever heard of. It was before all this trendy tea business.
JM:Paul said that he went to Vietnam.
BH:Paul did do business there. When Paul joined, he and Michael went together to travel for tea. Paul has not traveled to Asia that much, except for Thailand because of the coconut water. Not tea, but coconut water.
JM:What does he use the coconut water for?
BH:He is the distributor of it. He is the East Coast distributor. So Paul and Michael were traveling together for a couple of years. Then Michael pretty much does it now with an assistant. We have a great5 woman who works with him. She creates blends with him and he creates blends by himself which is quite good.
JM:Is there anything that you would like to add to this that I have not asked you about?
BH:We try to sell really good tea at a price that people can afford. That was important to John as it is for the boys (Michael & Paul). Thank you so much for this. I appreciate this very much.