Originally created 07/14/97

Tea business sipping at success



CHARLESTON, S.C. -William Barclay Hall is a third-generation English-trained tea taster; Mack Fleming, a horticulturist. But in the decade they have owned America's only commercial tea plantation, they have learned to be salesmen, cheerleaders and tour guides, as well.

And while their cup hasn't runneth over, it's getting closer to the rim.

Tea from Charleston Tea Plantation - sold under the American Classic and Governor Gray names - can be found on shelves of most supermarkets in the Carolinas and Georgia and in a number of chains around the country.

Mr. Fleming and Mr. Hall won't discuss sales or the size of their crop, but note their tea is now exported to Japan and Spain and sold to Wal-Mart for its Sam's Choice brand.

The company also sends out 20,000 mail-order catalogs a year selling everything from "Tea shirts" and picnic baskets to tea bags and bottled tea.

"I've seen it on the shelves of the A&P in the Northeast and that's quite a coup" for a small company, said Jane McCabe, the editor of the Tea and Coffee Trade Journal.

The tea trail began in 1987, when Mr. Hall and Mr. Fleming bought the 130-acre plantation 20 miles west of Charleston from Lipton, which was running it as an experimental station.

Mr. Fleming had been managing the station for Lipton, growing 320 types of tea.

"We have whittled it down to seven or eight varieties that we feel do well," Mr. Hall said.

Tea had been grown in the area for two centuries and it didn't take them long do develop the American Classic blend. It took longer to find the right blend of tea and marketing.

"We enjoyed growing the tea and making the tea and packaging the tea. But all the tea we have here packaged and ready to go is really of no value unless you turn it into green" cash, Mr. Fleming said. "We struggled."

Mr. Hall agreed, explaining: "We thought we'd be rich in two years."

Then came the realization.

"The average customer doesn't go into the supermarket today and say `I wonder if there is a new tea on the shelf.' You have to create some sort of interest," Mr. Hall said.

And American Classic has some selling points. It is the only American tea, it's been served in the White House and it's grown without the use of insecticides.

"There are no natural enemies to the tea plant here," Mr. Hall said.

But American Classic may soon have a rival.

The Mauna Kea Tea Co. in Kaui, Hawaii, has about two acres of tea and plans to bring its first harvest to market this fall, owner John Cross said.

"We expect to have it in ... the tourist boutiques and local markets where people buy macadamia nuts and coffee," he said.

Overall, tea is a hard sell.

Ms. McCabe said many supermarkets lose money on tea.

The price for tea has remained stable for years. For about $2 you can get 100 tea bags. Tea is grown in 35 counties and in some of them, harvesters are paid only a few dollars a week.

"The challenge is to compete on a price level with a relatively inexpensive crop," said Joe Simrany, president of the Tea Council of the U.S.A., an industry trade group.

To keep costs down, Charleston Tea Plantation, with a staff of about 35 during the May-through-October harvest season, uses a mechanical harvester of Mr. Fleming's design.

The company could not afford to stay in business if it had to hire the 500 workers to hand-pick the amount of tea that the machine can harvest, Mr. Fleming said.

So far, the marketing has been oneon-one with store owners and managers, and by giving guided tours of the plantation. Mr. Fleming and Mr. Hall even make the rounds to local civic groups to promote their tea.

But now Charleston Tea has brought in a third partner to boost the marketing efforts. Rick Wanch is a veteran of 31 years of selling for Lipton.

"If this product wasn't as good as it is, it wouldn't be around" after 10 years, Mr. Wanch said.