Tea, for many
MILLERTON — For most residents of the Tri-state region, John Harney Sr. is a jovial presence, greeting old and new friends at LaBonne’s Market near his home in Salisbury, offering tea samples and making jokes at the Harney and Sons tea shop and restaurant in Millerton, always smiling, friendly, funny. Many people still think of him as the innkeeper and bartender at Salisbury’s White Hart Inn, which he and his wife, Elyse (of Elyse Harney Real Estate), owned with a group of investors for more than two decades.And of course, his children think of him simply as, well, their dad. But Elyse Harney Morris got a glimpse of a different John Harney Sr. two weeks ago when she attended the World Tea Expo in Philadelphia, Pa.Her father was being honored by the tea association, which is actually not that rare. He has received numerous awards and honors for his work, so many in fact that his daughter had not been planning to attend the ceremony. “But my coworker, Barbara Roth, said on a year like this, you have to go,” Morris recalled. A year like this? Her father had just turned 80 — and then been diagnosed with cancer. He is now “clean” of the disease but certainly a scare such as that makes one appreciate one’s parent.So she went to the World Tea Expo, and saw her father honored with the Cha Jing Lifetime Achievement Award. It was the only award presented at the two-day show of the top tea merchants in the world. Generally it acknowledges “considerable contributions to the growth, innovation and education of the specialty tea industry.” Specifically, Harney was being celebrated for the qualities that have made him such a beloved figure here at home: “Widely respected by his peers and a role model for many, Harney has made a significant impact on the specialty tea industry through innovation, mentoring and service.”None of that was really a big surprise for his daughter. What came as a surprise, she said, was how many people came up to her to tell her what an important role her father had played in their lives.“I was stunned by how many people walked up to me and said, ‘You’re John Harney’s daughter? Do you know, your father is the reason I got into this business.’ And these were young people, people in their mid-20s. “Or they would say, ‘Your dad was the one who brought specialty tea to the United States and made a successful business out of it. He was our inspiration.’ People said to me, ‘He is the icon of tea in this country.’“It was just an amazing moment for me,” Morris said. “To have a whole ballroom full of people there to give my dad an award, and it was the only one given that night, it was moving. I was so proud of him and my brothers for what they’ve done, I was speechless. And it takes a lot for me to be speechless.”As for her dad, when he talks about the award it’s clear that it has meaning for him, and that he, too, was moved by the ceremony and the honor his industry had bestowed on him. But as he floated genially through the factory last week, checking on the machinery and chatting with his employees, he remained humble, charming and apparently astonished by his success.When asked how he turned a fairly common commodity into an international business, with his products sold at luxury hotels and restaurants around the world and at every Barnes and Noble bookstore in America, he just shrugs. When asked how it came about that his teas, from America, are sold at all the royal palaces in England, he laughs and says, “They called me up and asked if they could sell them!” He imitates a man speaking with a British accent and laughs even harder. “I thought it was one of my college classmates pulling a prank on me!” When asked how much tea his company sells, both he and his son, Michael, an important part of the tea business, will only say, “A lot.”But jolly as he might be, it’s clear that Harney has an eagle eye for the details. He knows how every machine works in his factory in Millerton. He knows every product, where it’s come from and where it’s going — and there is much more than tea moving through the factory. Every little corner holds a fascinating little package of something, usually a beverage or some sort of product associated with the drinking of tea, from cookies to spoons made of honey to cups and teapots.The three top-selling teas for the company are the sweet and fragrant Earl Grey; the hot cinnamon (“It’s our number one seller, because no one else makes anything like it,” Harney said) and the English Breakfast. Although the tea products (loose, in bags, in sachets and in bottles) are found at retail outlets all over the country now, Harney said his best customers are still restaurants and hotels and that the largest retail sales volume is through the company’s website. Before visiting the factory and spending some time watching Harney at work, it’s hard to imagine why anyone would go to the trouble to order Harney tea from the Internet when there are so many vendors of tea within easy reach.But after a tour, it becomes apparent that this tea is in fact different. For one thing, to the degree that this is possible for a product made in a factory, it does seem that the Harney products are made with love. That translates into the exquisite care that goes into making sure all the products are made with meticulous care and quality.“We’re giving people the quality that they want,” Harney said. “You gotta have quality. Because if you don’t have that, then who cares?”To learn more about Harney and Sons Tea products, go online to www.harney.com, or visit the tea shop and tasting room in Millerton (13 Main St., at Railroad Plaza) or the newest one, at 433 Broome St. in Manhattan.