Ideas: Tea anyone?
Story: Bridget Broihahn
Photos: Bridget Broihahn
There are those special pleasures in life: a smile, a friendly conversation, a great memory, and a good spot of tea. Ironically, it’s exactly these things-and more- that encouraged Hilary Porter to purchase the Walnut Street Tea Company last March, 2016 from its original owner, Betty Elliott.
Elliott was the original owner of the 35-year iconic business that sits quaintly on the corner at 115 S. Walnut St. in Champaign.
“I have been coming here to this shop since I was five years old,” Porter said from her shop last month.
Porter played cello as a child and would often come to the shop after lessons at the conservatory that was, back then, located nearby the tea shop. She credits her mother, Julie Anders, with passing down to her love of tea, and everything about it.
“Yes, it’s her fault! I love tea. This place has a special place in my heart,” she exclaimed with a huge smile.
What’s her favorite tea?
“I like the style of oolong. It’s delicate. It’s complex. I also like jasmine green tea,” she said.
It’s safe to say, however, that she enjoys many varieties and types of tea. So, the tea enthusiast that she is, when people started talking over their steaming cups of Darjeeling that Walnut Street Tea Company may go up for sale, her interest was steeped.
“In the back of my mind, I had always thought about owning my own business,” Porter said.
She has a background in retail and banking, both intense customer service oriented vocations, so she was ready to bag this opportunity. Coupled with her degree from the University of Illinois in business processes management, with an emphasis on logistics, she knew her strength in customer service could help her take the successful business and build upon its already strong foundation.
“The essence of this place is that there is something for everybody. I want to build on that element of the tried and true products, but expand on some varieties, and bring in new products and exciting choices,” she said.
The store offers thousands of items. Of course, there is the standard tea and coffee varieties, which are both in packages and in bulk, but there is so much more: honey, jam, chocolate, tea biscuits, Scottish shortbread, spices in bulk, and the list of consumables goes on and on. The tea shop also has non-consumable gift items like teapots of all varieties, styles and colors, tea cups, mugs, warmers, serving utensils and anything else that is required for a proper tea or a cup of joe.
She feels her strengths of inventory management, merchandizing, online representation, and website presence will enhance the business. And how. Shoppers can join the Walnut Club, which the intent is to give back to the customers for their 35-year support of the shop. Shoppers get discounts, special offers, and access to VIP events. It’s really easy to sign-up, just go to walnutstreettea.com and follow the user-friendly instructions.
To enhance customer service, Porter would like to have special events that would draw the public into the shop, but also enlighten those about the art and consumption of tea. Further, she wants to host educational events that would give people a little information about tea. Tea enthusiasts will relish the experience and newbies will drink-up the new information, enlightenment and history. Come on, tea is integral in our own American history. Recall the Boston Tea Party, anyone? Porter is a wealth of knowledge regarding the history of tea; where it originated, the evolution of tea consumption and culture, and the traditions associated with tea drinking.
Mostly, Porter wants to continue the tradition of the “feel good” place for which Walnut Street Tea Company is known. She wants to expand the varieties and teach others about the art of tea culture. Maybe even bring the art of the afternoon tea over to the states from its British cousin.
“The afternoon tea break is psychologically healing and restorative. I want to expand your tea knowledge and help you find your favorite tea. I want a place where regulars feel comfortable coming in. I want this to be that place. I want it to be your place,” she said.