Simpson & Vail, a decrepit but highly reputable tea importer in New York City that was already well known when Lester Vail became a partner in 1929, was for sale and could become Jim and Joan’s family business. They talked it over carefully. The company’s annual sales barely covered overhead, and Jim’s business acumen would not be enough to rebuild it—they would have to learn the art of tea tasting and blending. When David Walker, who had already taught them to love tea as he did, vowed to mentor them in the business of tea, Joan and Jim decided together to risk it all and became sole owners of Simpson & Vail in 1980.
The story ever since has been one long chain of blessings for Jim and Joan and their family but equally for America’s ever-swelling number of tea lovers. Jim and Joan abandoned successful careers to be together, and their mutual passion for tea created a family business that has played a leading role in America’s Tea Renaissance.
As the artist in the family, Joan produced the Simpson & Vail catalog and began building the mail order business. Specialty teas were next to impossible to find in the US in the 1980s, and mail order quickly accounted for half the firm’s revenue. Then a Japanese newspaper pictured the attractive catalog and set off an avalanche of mail orders from Japanese tea lovers unable to find comparable teas at any price in Japan. Jim, meanwhile, was apprenticed to David Walker every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon for tasting sessions. Each day was devoted to a single origin: Ceylons, Assams, Darjeelings, and with time, greens and oolongs, too. Within 25 years, he increased Simpson & Vail offerings from 18, when the Harrons took over, to 260 by 2005—and around 400 today. Nor are all of these Camellia sinensis.