Twentieth Anniversary Edition
Twenty years ago, it all began…with a sip. As the reader will soon learn, it was a notable sip to chase away a wretched coffee-induced caffeine withdrawal. For hours an invisible force had been wildly stabbing the inside of my head. Exhausted, I made a cup of tea, gentle and warming, and it began to settle me. When the withdrawal expired and clarity resurfaced, I knew immediately that I was finished with daily coffee forever. If by its mere absence coffee could wreak such misery as I had just experienced, there was no longer any illusion that I was having it—rather it was having me. Resolved: I would instead drink tea. Tea…is different. It has half or less or no caffeine at all. It has a cleaner taste, not oily, carrying exotic and intriguing notes of the very gardens in which the leaves were grown.
Finding tea, another matter.
Twenty years ago in America, as Kleenex is to tissues, Lipton’s was to tea. Its tea bag filled with the dustier dregs of orange pekoe leaves was what you were served even in the finest restaurants. Such was the American consciousness of tea. I wondered: How could this be? Why hadn’t anybody thought to bring tea in all its nuances, traditions, tales and delights—to the attention of Americans who, like me, hadn’t even given it a second thought?
And so it was that I found tea and sipped my way into business. Having at the time just built and sold Banana Republic, I tended, for fun and profit, to confuse companies and countries. Accordingly, I named my new (ad)venture The Republic of Tea. In my new country, population one, I offered myself and accepted the position of Minister of Leaves. My wife Patricia nepotistically installed herself as Minister of Enchantment. Soon afterwards, an efficient young man named Bill Rosenzweig came along to take up the position of Minister of Progress. The three of us undertook a prodigious correspondence by an antediluvian device named the fax machine, buzzing back and forth ideas, sketches, musings, questions as we explored how to constitute the newly declared Republic of Tea. A friend, Bruce Katz, spied the pile of faxes and alerted Harriet Rubin, an editor at Doubleday, who appeared in our home and insisted the faxes had to be published. Morton Janklow made the proper arrangements, and with the book advance the Republic of Tea’s treasury was funded.
Bruce Katz added some funds of his own, which bought him the Ministry of Finance. As Bruce was more practical about these things than Patricia and I, he talked us out of our inclination to establish The Republic of Tea as a retail establishment. Instead we would create a line of teas and distribute them broadly. In the process we would promulgate Tea Mind, which we saw as the sip-by-sip alternative to the rampant 24/7 gulp-by-gulp madness then just beginning to grip the land.
“Make twenty-one teas,” advised Bruce, “and try to get as much shelf space as you can.”
Shelf space? Now imagine those shelves in the early 90s. In even the best markets, tea got one foot, or two at the most, on one shelf. For black tea, it was Lipton’s or Twinings. For herbal teas, it was Celestial Seasonings, a brand founded by a Colorado hippie named Moe Siegel. Such was the real estate when Little Republic of Tea started to squeeze itself between them.
In virtually no time, the round Republic of Tea cans, with novel full leaf teas, colonized a considerable portion of tea-designated shelf space in gourmet and natural food stores throughout America. The demand began to outrun the supply and our ability to finance it.
By this point, the book had found its way to St. Louis, where a businessman named Ron Rubin found it, read it voraciously, and bought a ticket to California to meet us. “The book changed my life,” he proclaimed. “Would you be interested in selling the company?”
Having just had a new baby, we decided nothing would make us happier than taking home our Tea Mind and spending as much time as we could with her. Ron purchased our shares and shortly afterwards Bill’s as well, and a new regime installed itself at The Republic of Tea.
I could not imagine a more perfect buyer for the company. Ron, humble and smart, was eager to see the full vision of The Republic of Tea realized. The book became his operating bible. To this day, he will refer to the sketch “on page 76” or still unclaimed tea names “on page 147.” Step by step and sip by sip, Ron (and now his bright, personable son, Todd) have turned our rough idea into an operating gem that has inspired the creation of a whole new category—specialty tea—in markets everywhere. Tea, having outgrown its two feet of shelf space, now commands a section all its own, in which Republic of Tea often sits in the middle as the wise elder. And restaurants? Few today would dare to serve Lipton’s.
Ron has turned the company into a terrific place to work, often taking his employee “ministers” to visit tea gardens worldwide, putting a portion of profits to work fighting breast cancer and other worthy causes, all the while losing no opportunity to evangelize the “sip by sip” way of life.
Thanks to the Rubins, twenty years later the company is as true as it was on day one, and tea has earned its rightful place as a balm in a world that needs it more than ever.
Mill Valley, California
April 11, 2012