Emeric Harney Interview
This is file #27, cycle 3. Today’s date is March 16, 2018. This is Jean McMillen. I am interviewing Emeric Harney, Alex’s brother. He is going to talk about his first experiences in the Harney Fine Tea Company, the shop that he runs in SoHo, New York, and the pod casts that he and his brother have started. First we will start with the genealogical information>
JM:What is your name?
EH:My name is Emeric Paul Warmuth Harney.
JM:That is a family name.
EH:Yes on my paternal grandmother’s side.
EH:It is March 9th, 1987.
JM:Where were you born?
EH:I was born in Chicago, Illinois, at Norfolk Street Hospital.
JM:Your parents’ names?
EH:Michael Leigh Harney and Brigitte Guillot.
EH:I have an older brother Alexander Antoine, and a younger brother Bertram Breysse Harney.
JM:How and when did you come to this area?
EH:I believe it was in the summer of 1988 that my father moved us from Chicago to Lakeville, Salisbury area. I was only one and one half years old and really did not have much say in the matter. I do know my parents bought the place on 34 Sharon Road in Lakeville.
JM:What is your earliest memory of the tea company, what you did?
EH:My very first memory, I think the reason I remember it the most is just because people have told me about it, is being a toddler and sitting on top of a counter top in the garage of my grandparent’s house at 11 East Main Street, Salisbury, and peeling off stickers and handing them to Sally Spillane to put on the tea tins. I must have been 3 or 4 at that point.
JM:When did you start working at the retail shop at Brook Street?
EH:I think I was 11 or 12 when I started working at Brook Street. My parents were adamant that I did something other than the Grove. I played sports but I was still kind of an indoor kid. It was also a bit
rigorous work, working for my mother. At that point I was ringing people out at the cash register, doing tasting but at the Brook Street Store I think we had only 50 teas. There were 2 walls of 25. We did do gift wrapping. My mother was very meticulous and insisted upon doing it well. I think she instilled that to me. My biggest weakness in math was always rushing through the problem without reading the last part. Half of the work would be right and the end was wrong, like I did not read Part B. In gift wrapping I checked all the creases and made sure that everything was centered. It is unfortunate that gift wrapping has changed. I don’t know if it is from cost purposes or what. My mom used to melt wax and do the stamp on everything. I thought that was so charming. I think with the capacity we have now, gift wrapping like that, we can’t do it. It is expensive. It is still fun, but it is not as charming.
JM:You moved over to Railroad Plaza in Millerton, New York in 2005. Did you continue to help over there?
EH:In 2005 I did not. When I graduated from Salisbury Boys School, I must have filled in, but not on a consistent basis. I went on to the University of Vermont; I was there for half a year. Came home upset with the school, the social life whatever. teenage angst. I went with my father out to the fancy food show in San Francisco in 2006. We ended up driving down the coast after the show because I was kind of interested in acting. I was interested in LA. I was the designated driver because I was only 18 which was fine. I ended moving out to Los Angeles that March. I was there for a good chunk of time. I came back in November, again social angst. Being gay and having come out at 15 was certainly great, but I was still trying to find myself. Finally I came home again in tears, and then attended Northwestern Community College in Winsted for a year. My parents were very concerned that staying here was not a good thing for me so my dad was encouraging me to continue to look out to do something. I actually applied to the University of Paris. I began there in the fall of 2007 where I studied fashion and journalism. Of course I was continuing to figure out what I wanted to be interested in to pursue.
JM:If you are good at many things, it is difficult to make a single choice.
EH:It is crippling sometimes. There is a quite from somebody about how crippling it can be with all the opportunities available. I was in Paris for a year and developed a bit of a benign skin tumor and came home in the summer of 2008. That is when I began to work with my father; we went on a trip to China. I took some photos. I fancied myself good at photography at that point after having worked in fashion in Paris. I had a chip on my shoulder for that. I just fell in love with that. As an adult I started to fall in love with tea. In high school I worked on the weekends at Brook Street. I developed some teas here and there in my mid-teens. Actually all of them are still around today: there is the Silver blend, the White Christmas and Apple Cinnamon. They do well which is nice. That part of tea I liked but it wasn’t until going to China and meeting the farmers, smelling the tea first hand that all of it just came together.
JM:It all melded: all of your experiences will help you focus on what it is that your passion.
EH:Absolutely. I don’t think I could be as successful as I was in SoHo and where I am today in marketing if I hadn’t had those experiences. When I came back from China and exploring with Mike (See file #58, cycle 2, Michael Harney) about what a stronger relationship the company could be for me. He was interested in helping me out with a branch in the city, but I don’t think he was confident yet in my abilities. He wanted me to spend more time with my mom, understudying with her and her assistant manager who was Sarah Stevens at the time. That is what I did for the first year back from Paris. I worked at the shop; I went to the shows with her. I went to some management training. In late2009 we started looking for spaces in the city. Eventually we found 433 Broome Street in SoHo. Interestingly enough if you look into the history of Broome Street, Mr. Broome was an importer of tea and that rings thru for us.
JM:A perfect location in SoHo. Where is that?
EH:It is the lower portion of the island, possibly the lower 1/5 of the island. When you exit the store and walk half a block and turn left you are in bustling Broadway where all the big stores are and if you turn right half a block it is just one of those tiny cobblestone streets and a nice quiet neighborhood. We are not far off the beaten path and it is a great destination. We had been working with and a lot of the spaces we were looking at did not have the two floors that we needed for storage, it didn’t have the right vibes, the price was too high. Then all of a sudden a sign appeared “for sale by owner” so we called up. It was really nice and it worked out well for us.
We signed the lease on June 1, 2010. Thus began our partnership with Poesis Design. (See Scoville Memorial Library renovation 2014-16 file # 20, cycle 2, John Hoffman, file #1, cycle 3, Isabel Sloane)We designed the store with them. It was a rigorous process. I had gone through thousands of resumes, I had interviewed over 700 employees, and really to get a sense of who would we get for the store, the tea representatives. I was not the general contractor but I was there overseeing it to make sure everything was done well. That was June, July, August, and September. October was when we did all the training and interviewing and we brought them up here to meet the family and tour the factory.
JM:That was a wonderful process because they then really understood what they were representing.
EH:They met Poppa John and Ozzie (Elyse Harney Sr.) they got to see the factory and all the inner workings. It is a challenge now to continue to do that; turnover might be high.
JM:In talking with your mother (See file #23, cycle3, Brigitte Harney) her employees come first and customers second. If you treat your employees well, they will stay. She was very insistent that people get a decent salary. It is not much different in the city than the country.
EH:It is just harder to get them to the factory. It is a longer train ride.
JM:How big is the shop?
EH:2,500 square feet on the top floor, and 2,500 square feet on the bottom floor. The bottom is used for the offices and for all of the storage. We have more room than my mom. I believe the front of house for the retail shop in Millerton is 1,700square feet. It is significantly smaller. At her shop the ceiling are quite low whereas my ceilings go way up. We have a lot more shelf space, but unfortunately for our tiny tourist have to ask for assistance sometimes.
JM:How many teas do you taste there?
EH:We do the full spread, so there are over 300. When you walk in, we have our cash register, we have the tasting bar. There is a complimentary tasting per person.
JM:How many tastings can you have?
EH:There is one per person, but if you come with friends, we always encourage people to come in in larger groups because for us tea is a personal thing. Rather than letting people purchase for the wrong time, we encourage them to come with friends to talk about the tea that they are tasting and to have a good time. We now are down to requests and just started offering that ability for people to purchase. In the back we have a little sit down area where our main stay to that business is tea and scones. We have added things over the years, quiches, macaroons and cakes, but really what it comes down to is people are just looking for a nice central place to enjoy a good pot of tea and a scone. We have the cream and the jam. When you look at the numbers, the majority of the business is tea and scones. They work together and it is nice to be able to offer that. We noticed in Millerton that there is a symbiotic relationship between having the café and having the store because people can shop while they are waiting for a table or if they have just shopped, they can seat and have a tea and relax and have another cup of what they really love. Sometimes it is a little challenging because a competitor Starbucks bought Tea Bana and they tried to the same as what we are doing and it did not work for them. They have closed down the store. If you can stick it out, it works. It cannot be overly complicated which is why tea and scones is great.
We finally opened November 16, 2010 with our official opening party. It was terrifying because that was a Monday and they guys were supposed to come on Sunday to do the floors. They messed them up. Oh my god it was a nightmare! We have made the announcements. We can’t redo the floors now. We opened and we had great opening party. We had 300 people there. One of the New York things about opening the store was when we had paper over the windows and we had a PR firm that had picked the Wall Street Journal for our exclusive of the interviews. I remember being on the phone talking to Florence Fabricant at the New York Times. She was trying to figure out what our address was: she had inkling and stopped by and I told the staff, “If you see this lady come by, we are not here. We have no idea when we are opening.” It was a weird moment to be fighting away press. I never thought that that was where we would be. I felt no, tell everybody: we want everybody to know but the Wall Street Journal had the exclusive. The first official day of business was the 17th.
JM:Did you get the floors fixed?
EH:We haven’t. Honestly I they weathered really well. What happened was it was supposed to be a dark stain on the wood, but it ended up being paint. So you really could not appreciate the texture of the wood. At this point now it is has become a wash because of all the scuff marks. It now has this really nice natural patina. So it is OK.
Our lease is up in two years. Honestly I don’t know what we are doing. It should be thought about. We have always seen growth year after year, really great growth. It has been great to have a more metropolitan and accessible location because we are distributed in almost 50 countries and we are known internationally. People want to bring back souvenirs and they want to shop. It is a great way for us to engage with our customers. We are very proud to have that; I do hope we can stay. Real estate has changed since 2009: they are charging double or triple what we are paying currently. That might not be tenable for us. We have a fairly relationship with the land lord so I don’t see it as a major challenge, but he is in his 70’s. We don’t know what his plans are, if he wants to sell the building or if he wants to move or he wants nobody there. Who knows?
Just over the years the retail has generally stayed the same like my mom’s shop. She has tea pots and tea ware and teas the coasters and candles and general style accessories that might compliment a tea drinker. The café has changed a lot over the 7 years. It was just tea and scones and then we added lunches. That became unmanageable so we went back down to just bringing in quiches and afternoon tea and that became unmanageable. Now we are just doing the fast casual type service. You can sit down: you can have your cup of tea with scones and macaroons and little cakes and sweets and things like that. There is a lot of prep work and I want my employees to be more engaged it teas and tea beverages, whether it is a latte or just a standard tea rather that table service, prepping quiches, making salads, that is not what I want my employees to do.
JM;Do you have a general manager?
EH:I do. It was just myself until just recently. My new general manager is Gelanie Stewart. He was one of my very first employees. He was in the first round. He has been there since the very beginning. I could not ask for anything better. My other manager who just left in January was a woman who grew up with me here and we were neighbors since we were three. She was with us but she got an offer to do “Hair the Musical” in Germany.
JM:How many staff do you have total?
EH:I think it is 17 or 18. It is crazy too because we want to compensate our staff for the knowledge that they have to hold for the engagement and being an ambassador for us for the customers. For years the minimum wage was nothing, it just stood there. We are trying to continue to be above it because that is what we want to have New York went from being the same minimum wage for the first 5 years, but all of a sudden it has increased tremendously, $2.00 a year per employee. We have had to adjust to that and had to change our hours, change offerings to make it still a successful business.
JM:I am assuming that you do trade shows for your items other than tea.6.
EH:Yes we go to the New York International Gift Fair at the Javitt’s Center twice a year. It is a lot to walk. Wear some comfortable shoes. It is unfortunate though as I don’t feel that it is as good as it has been in previous years. People are mass producing things. Also our customers aren’t interested in hand made products because they cost more. The shows seem less effective than they used to be. We have our standards and we try to be true to then. Everything is so readily available. I sometimes feel why am I offering it? It is a challenge.
JM:Are you running this store in SoHo independently or is it a branch of the family business?
EH:It is a separate business, but it is a LLC where some of the members are Harney & Sons are the providers. My father and other people are involved but it is separate.
JM:Is there anything else that you would like to add to about the SoHo store before we go on to the pod casts?
EH:Not specifically no.
JM:The pod casts “As the Tea Steeps” where did the idea come from?
EH:To continue a little bit about from managing the shop in SoHo to where I am today, I had started in 2014 editing our packaging and trying to work that way. I moved back up to Sharon was commuting back to the city to manage SoHo and then just got more and more involved in the marketing aspect of the company. In 2016 we lost our marketing team and that was when I was giving the opportunity, actually I asked for it! We had come back from a really nice family vacation. We were gone for a couple of weeks and they marketing team fell apart. We were wondering what is going to happen. I just said ”Give me this opportunity: I think I can do all this. I shall research what I don’t know. I will make it happen.” We got by for the first holiday season. It was really terrifying! We switched to a brand new web platform in October. It was an adjustment and I have learned a lot about commerce and marketing which is great. In my research looking at forms of content in which we can engage with our customers. For the longest time Harney & Sons was a great boutique business. We are making great teas. We are giving reasonable prices to our customers. We had a decent marketing cadence. We would do free shipping on orders over this, or we would do percentage off over this. Small curated offerings such as orchard season so here is this tea, but it wasn’t a grave over-all marketing package. We weren’t putting out really much video or content for people to read. Our blog was stagnant; the travelogue was stagnant.
I really wanted to make people want to come back to us for reasons beyond our great teas. We wanted to be a source of information and tea related and maybe also tea adjacent. In my research and looking at different ways that we could make interesting content for people, pod casts came up. I listen to pod casts. Sometimes the ones that are on-going , I have a hard time keeping up with because all of a sudden I have 12 of them. How can I listen to 12 hour long episodes every week? It becomes a hardship. I don’t want the responsibility of that. Creating something that is small, little bites. This is our first step into it.
That really appealed to me. We have always done a little into letter and we have got little elements of our company history throughout the product. There is the Elyse’s blend for my grandmother or there’s the Forte tea that my grandfather had done for the Forte restaurant in Colorado when they were having this big summit back in the Clinton Administration. There were things here and there that makes us unique, but there wasn’t a total package that people could understand why this is Harney & Sons tea, not Fortnum & Mason. This is not Upton or whoever else does tea. This is what makes us; that also appealed to me to bring the story together as a whole.
My grandmother is still around and she has an amazing memory. She has to be the one to help us tell the story. We started thinking about who else could be part of it. Obviously Michael and Paul (See file #68, cycle 2, Paul Harney) my mom did an interview. Unfortunately my brother did a lot pf prompting; he helped finish her sentences so it wasn’t a great interview. You can feed a line, but you really need them to give it all back.
JM:How did you get James Norwood Pratt from San Francisco?
EH:That happened serendipitously because he was coming back to us in August for a little week’s trip to celebrate Poppa John’s birthday. He happened to be here so we have to pull the trigger. Let’s make it happen so we worked with Ashworth Creative out of Poughkeepsie. They helped us craft the questions and the ark of the story. It also happened that same week that Norwood was here, Marcus Wulf was here. So it really all came together perfectly.
JM:Listening to the podcasts made me want to buy the Pratt book for myself. James Norwood Pratt’s (1999 edition) New Tea Lover’s Treasury is very interesting reading about the history of tea. Your father’s book The Harney & Sons Guide to Tea (2008 edition) is a guide to teas and tea tasting which is also very interesting.
Each one of the pod casts in the first series is short, each is different but it archives the story of the company which is unusual. It is current and to have the actual people talking about the birth of the company and its growth makes it very intimate. It is very well done. It must take a long time to put it together?
EH:It takes more time than I expected. I had wanted to launch the series in November, and here we are starting in late February. Originally Ashford had given me a quote for 15 hours to start. That was for the questions and the first round of coming to listen to the interviews; then creating the ark, then the voice overs and we had to do an additional two segments. There was at least 40-50 hours of Ashworth’s time. Each of the interviews took about 2 hours. We were recording in Stone Studio right across from Hotchkiss School. Monte Stone plays piano at least he used to when I was a Salisbury and did chapel. We had done the first interview with Norwood Pratt and my grandmother. That was broken up into three episodes just because it was so content rich. We could not have just given it one. Michael has his own interview with us, Alex and me. We had done Paul, Marcus and Mike together because that is really the start of the second generation. Marcus really worked hard. I feel largely responsible for
increasing the breadth of the tea that we have. Marcus was pivotal in that. If Marcus had not introduced him and taken him on these trips he might not have the opportunity. That was important. Unfortunately Paul’s daughter Teagan was very loud in that interview so not all of it was usable. We have done my mom. That one has not been used. We did a second one with Paul because we were interviewing him with Marcus and came up with more questions to do. We thought in our process that the interview process with two people engaging with each other worked better than Alex and I interviewing one person. There was a natural chemistry and cadence that came out of it, especially Paul and Elyse (his sister) because they are of the second generation of the second generation. They get along well. Their humor is tangible and people can appreciate it. That makes it spectacular. That was the 5th interview. Those were each 2 hours. Then Graham has done all his editing which when you add it all up was close to 20-30 hours. Then Alex and I went back over to do the voice overs which was about ½ hour each which was not terrible. The only challenge with that is that basically it is very different when you are actually listening to the audio and then saying your lines. It is almost like a cold script read. My brother who has no acting background did a very good job. After all the episodes are done, we would go back through and do a one hour long listen through so that we say that this chronologically does not make sense, let’s chop it or can we rerecord it or do another piece to make it work. We have one more session coming up on Monday for Paul’s episode. The last episode of the pod casts airs March 29th, 2018. That is season one.
I would love to do a season 2. We have seen a great response. We have had more downloads than I would have thought. We do also have on ITunes where they have the ratings and reviews; it has been very nice to hear what people think about it. It is all 5 star which is nice. There was one 4 star. I don’t blame this person at all; it can be a little confusing. My grandmother name drops, not like a famous name drop. It can get a little confusing. The latter half which is more current and les archival, it is easier to digest. It has been a great and fun process.
JM:Where can they be viewed?
EH:for those that don’t have smartphones, it is website harneyteas.libsyn.com otherwise they are on ITunes podcasts or Google play.
JM:Is there anything else that you would like to add about the podcasts before we close?
JM:Thank you so much.