Photo courtesy of Bigelow Tea (bigelowtea.com)
Partners in the tea business as well as in life, Ruth Campbell Bigelow and her husband, David, founded R.C. Bigelow Tea Company more than 60 years ago. Originating with Ruth’s spicy Constant Comment tea blend, the prosperous family-owned company has continued its growth and success by catering to the tastes of American tea drinkers.
When Ruth Campbell Bigelow stood in her home kitchen and mixed a special tea blend based on an old colonial recipe, she had a vision. Believing that American taste buds desired a more zestful tea than what was currently available to them, Ruth came up with an aromatic blend of orange peel and spices and tested it among her friends. Ruth, as it turned out, was right. The blend, Constant Comment, was an immediate success and became the foundation for the 1945 launch of R.C. Bigelow Tea Company.
With Ruth and her husband, David, at the helm, Bigelow Tea produced a full line of teas, in addition to Constant Comment, presently the number-one selling flavored tea in America. The senior Bigelows passed the torch to their son David and his wife Eunice in the mid-1960s. They, in turn, passed it to daughters Lori and Cindi. Lori, president of Bigelow Tea Company, answers questions about her grandmother and the thriving company that bears her family name.
Q. Tell us the story of how Ruth came up with her signature Constant Comment tea.
A. My grandmother, Ruth Campbell Bigelow, developed Constant Comment as a result of believing that the quality of tea in America was not what it should be in the 1940s. The name actually came from all the comments she received whenever she served her unique and one-of-a-kind orange and spice tea.
Q. Was Ruth involved in the tea business before Constant Comment?
A. This was her very first venture into the tea business, although my grandmother was also involved with spices and tapioca.
Q. It was rather revolutionary for a woman to head a company at that time. What qualities enabled her to compete in a traditionally male field?
A. My grandmother had a burning desire to bring a high-quality tea to American tea drinkers. My parents, Eunice and David, and my sister Cindi and I have continued with my grandmother’s mission to create fine-quality teas for all to enjoy. Ruth knew the path to success was not easy, but through hard work, perseverance, and attention to detail, she was able to lay the foundation that allowed Bigelow Tea to become what it is today.
Q. When did Ruth turn over the reins to her son David?
A. David, my dad, had worked with his mother and father throughout the early years of the company. His responsibilities increased in the early 1960s, and he became president of the company just a few years later. Today my father and mother are co-chairpersons of the board.
Q. How did David grow the company?
A. My dad has a remarkable entrepreneurial mind. Several events have defined Bigelow Tea's growth. In the mid-1970s, he expanded the products offered by the company with the introduction of our Special Blends line of flavored black teas. The late ’70s saw the introduction of our Herb Tea line. It was also during this time period that the company made a major shift in sales and marketing strategy and became the first specialty tea to be sold in grocery stores across America. In the 1980s, he introduced a decaffeinated line of our most popular flavors. Probably the defining moment for Bigelow Tea was when my father proposed the individually over-wrapped tea bag, which keeps the last cup as fresh as the first in every box of Bigelow Tea. This afforded us a tremendous advantage over our competitors.
Q. Who is responsible for coming up with new blends?
A. The Bigelow family is continually working on new flavors and product lines. Ideas for new teas can come from all areas of the company. A lot of research is done by sales and marketing, but we encourage all our employees to submit their ideas for potential new flavors. We have an extensive lab operation, my responsibility, that moves the process forward from the formulation to the testing, tasting, and qualification stages. It’s a lot of work that I find very rewarding—to see the new teas make it to the store shelf for tea lovers to enjoy.
Q. When and why did Bigelow buy the Charleston Tea Plantation?
A. We purchased the Charleston Tea Plantation in May of 2003 to preserve America’s only working tea farm. The tea plants at the plantation are direct descendents of those brought over to the Charleston area in the 1800s, and the Bigelow family wanted to make certain this rich heritage not only continued, but flourished. We just couldn’t let the only tea plantation in America die—we just couldn’t. We had to save it for history, for tea lovers, for the tea industry, for the beauty of it, and mostly for our true love of tea.
Q. What are your plans for the plantation?
A. The first couple of years we used all our resources on restoring the tea plants to a healthy and strong position. I am pleased to report that the plants are once again thriving in the unique Lowcountry weather on Wadmalaw Island and American Classic Tea is once again available for a truly different taste in tea. We also looked closely at the farm’s processing facility that dated back to the 1960s and realized that the entire manufacturing operation required an overhaul. Our new processing facility, which opened in 2005, brought state-of-the-art technology to tea making at Charleston Tea Plantation. Our most ambitious plans call for the introduction of ag-tourism at the farm. We’ve opened the farm up for all to come and experience America’s only tea plantation. The response so far has been beyond anyone’s expectations! Visitors come from all over the world to see the beauty and splendor of the farm and to take the unique factory tour to understand how tea is made. Our elevated tourway gives everyone a first-hand look into the factory. Large television screens guide visitors through an educational and informative tour. In the future, we plan to sponsor events such as weddings, business outings, and family reunions. It’s just a great place to come and visit for all occasions.
Q. What unique challenges do you face as a family-owned company?
A. One of the greatest challenges is competing with public companies that seem to have unlimited funds for advertising and promotions. We are fortunate that our consumers recognize our family commitment to quality and wonderfully tasting teas and herb teas. We spend a tremendous amount of time communicating with our consumers to be certain we are meeting, as well as exceeding, their expectations.
Q. Is the next generation of Bigelows waiting in the wings?
A. We’re hoping! I have a wonderful niece and nephew, and they should be ready to take over the family tradition when the time comes for my sister and me to step aside.