At Bigelow Tea, everyone is family

At this year’s Tea Association of the USA Holiday Dinner, David and Eunice Bigelow, the second-generation leaders of Bigelow Tea, were honoured. David’s mother, Ruth Bigelow, founded Bigelow Tea in 1945 in their New York City apartment. The first product, and still one of the company’s best sellers today, was “Constant Comment,” a mix of black tea, orange peel and sweet spices.

A true entrepreneur, Ruth Bigelow, who had spent thirty years as an interior designer, decided to create a new tea because she found the black teas available in the United States at the time to be unpleasant: too strong and very astringent. In his book, The Story of Bigelow Tea, David notes that Ruth developed Constant Comment based on a tea that she heard was popular in the colonies in the 1600s.

He writes, “As the story went, the colonists of the time would mix orange peel and sweet spice with black tea in a crockery jar and store it in the cold cellar to age, and then serve it at the holidays as a special treat.” Without a recipe, Ruth set out on a quest find the key ingredients to replicate the colonists’ tea. This journey brought her to Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) where she found “tea with wonderful flavour and no astringency.” David admits that he does not know from where she originally sourced the orange peel and spices, and how Ruth concocted the eventual blend, except that she did say it was “all trial and error.”

David joined the company in 1948 after graduating from college. He was responsible for developing new packaging that promoted the tea. The problem with the original packaging, according to David, was that the label did not describe the tea. He (and his parents) chose red and black as the colours for the new packaging (the signature red and black is used in the modern Constant Comment packaging as well) and “Constant Comment” was written in Ruth’s handwriting. By 1955, Constant Comment was being sold in gift and gourmet food shops, department stores, florists, beauty parlors and even hardware stores. Grocery stores, however, still had small tea selections.

David left the company to pursue a career in the film industry but returned in 1959 to run Bigelow Tea (by this time, his parents were in their early 80s). Together with his wife Eunice, David being the “idea guy” took the business to the next level. I’m not certain, but perhaps in what could be one of the first “celebrity spokespeople” to tout a product, David tapped Art Linkletter to promote Constant Comment on his show “House Party” on the CBS Radio Network. David writes, “There’s no question that Art Linkletter was an enormous help to us in getting Constant Comment started in grocery stores and supermarkets.” In addition to expanding the retail distribution, David and Ruth grew the company’s product line.

By 1974, in addition to Constant Comment, the product line included Earl Grey, Plantation Mint, Lemon Lift, Cinnamon Stick, English Teatime, Irish Breakfast, Rose Garden, Chinese Fortune and Royal Jasmine. Under David and Eunice’s leadership, Bigelow Tea continued to grow. Bigelow introduced the first green tea to the US mass market in the 1990s. Today, between its five brands, varying tea types and formats, Bigelow Tea has more than 100 teas from which consumers may choose.

In 2005, after many years of working various positions within the company, David and Eunice’s daughter, Cindi Bigelow, assumed the position of president and CEO. Under her leadership, Bigelow Tea has continued to grow and expand. However, David and Eunice – now in their 90s – still work (their desks reportedly still face each other).

In his book, David writes, “My mom and dad felt very strongly about having good principles, and values. Fine quality for one…Customer satisfaction was job one. That lesson is so critical and we passed it on to the next generation…They also felt that being kind, considerate and appreciative of all the folks that come every day to help us grow our business was of the upmost importance. My mother had always been so kind to everyone who worked for us. That was a tradition that both Eunice and I wanted to continue.”

At the Holiday Dinner, employees, both present and past, discussed the kindness and feeling of values and family you have while working at Bigelow Tea, under David and Eunice, and now under Cindi. “The love of family is clear in all the things the Bigelows do. It’s not just the Bigelow family, it’s the industry family,” said Peter Goggi, president of the Tea Association of the USA, during his comments.

It’s rare and refreshing to see a company that started as a small, family-run business decades ago, which has continued to evolve and grow into leader in the tea industry – still family-owned and operated – maintain those strong, family values that were instrumental in its founding, growth and success.

  • Vanessa L Facenda, editor Tea & Coffee Trade Journal. She may be contacted via [email protected]

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