I first read “The Republic of Tea” when it came out in 1994. I was immediately taken by the passion of the book’s co-authors and company founders, Mel and Patricia Ziegler—who founded Banana Republic—and budding entrepreneur Bill Rosenzweig.
The two men met on a serendipitous trip to the airport, when they shared the same cab. Ziegler hadn’t been planning on heading home that day, but changed his plans when a conference on business and social responsibility couldn’t stand up to the degree to which he was missing his son, who was 2 at the time.
Their connection was immediate, and clearly kismet.
But I believe the reason this book took up residence in my imagination for all these years is the brutal honesty of the authors. There couldn’t have been a better pick for the December Book of the Month to complement our Honesty issue, featuring Honest Tea founder Seth Goldman.
The book chronicles the 20-month exchange of faxes, in which Rosenzweig and the Zieglers brewed up the idea for their new company—the first in the premium tea category.
In fact, the book is a work of art, for it includes their doodles, dreams, and clever banter, which gets all too real as Rosenzweig—self-dubbed “The Minister of Progress“—morphs from dreamer to businessman with the help of the veteran entrepreneurs on the other end of the faxes, “The Minister of Leaves” and “The Minister of Enchantment.”
In the first fax, on April 7, 1990, The Ministers of Progress ask The Minister of Leaves: “If you have to boil it down into a single phrase, what is the philosophy behind the Republic of Tea?”
The Minister of Leaves responds: “To show, through the metaphor of tea, the lightness of taking life sip by sip rather than gulp by gulp. What would you say is the business behind the philosophy?”
Progress explains: The business of The Republic of Tea is to sell (which means we have to find) the best tea on Earth.”
And so the discussion goes until December 1991, between the poet and the realists. We know that they find a balance, and The Republic of Tea goes on to live a wonderfully warm, rich life. In 1994, the founders sold the company to Ron Rubin, under whom the company has grown into a nationally recognized category leader in specialty teas, with annual sales that currently top $20 million.
Back in 1990 and 1991, it was slowgoing—and often not the smooth blend that the partners hoped for. In this 300-page trade paperback that often reads like a novel, readers get inside the feelings and emotions of three partners as they confront their fears and dreams to create an enormously successful company.
Readers will learn of the breakthroughs and breakdowns of the creative process—inventing a product, developing a plan, and structuring a business partnership. The book even provides the actual business plan used to raise money for the venture.
Talk about a tea party!
For all you entrepreneurs with a predilection for poetry, you’ll appreciate this letter from the book’s Introduction by The Minister of Leaves, with the salutation, “Dear Fellow People of Tea,” below.
For those with a stricter business bent, check out the letter written by Ziegler on the 20th anniversary of the company’s founding. Both, I think, are equally delicious. — Hope Katz Gibbs, publisher, Be Inkandescent magazine
DEAR FELLOW PEOPLE OF TEA:
I came to The Republic of Tea through a journey of many cups.
I had served nearly 10 years as Prime Minister in another Republic, where the beverage of choice was brewed from roasted coffee beans. Fueled by the coffee, life moved very rapidly for me in that other Republic, so fast that I began to sense I was missing something quite grand along the way. The sensation grew until I could bear it no longer. I was compelled to defect. Fleeing the race-to-nowhere that had been my life, I tasted the joys of existence in a new way—sip by sip rather than gulp by gulp.
I wandered for nearly a year in a pathless land until one night I found myself staying at a lodge where coffee was not available. Its absence left me untroubled until a few hours after breakfast. It was then that a wrenching and furious storm unlike anything I had experienced before swept into my head. Lightning ripped from behind my eyes to the back of my skull. By evening the fury had dissipated and I was well again.
Better than well, I should say. I found myself in a deep state of clarity and calm. It was while I was in that novel condition that I came to realize something I could never see before: It wasn’t I who was having the coffee all those years; rather, it was the coffee that was having me. If one day without coffee could bring me into such wretched discomfort, then this beverage I had assumed to be benign was in truth nothing but a dark, oily opiate. I vowed to myself then and there that never again would I be hostage to the black swill.
I switched to tea. With all due respect to Sir Thomas Lipton, be he apocryphal or real, I sadly realized that to drink the beverage served under his name for the rest of my life would be a sentence too bleak to bear. A new mission had finally found me. I set out in search of true tea.
Little did I know what a staggering assignment I had taken on. In the Land of America, where I began my journey, it was all but impossible to find any tea whatsoever whose leaves had not been pulverized into tiny “tea” bags. I decided I would sooner take my hot water plain than allow myself to drink those sickly shavings passed off to the unwitting as “tea.”
It was with supreme good fortune that The Minister of Progress appeared one fine day and graciously offered his services. He declared it his own personal charge to canvass the most prized tea gardens of the world for their worthiest leaves, and said he would not rest until he saw these teas steaming in the cups of men, women, and children everywhere. Inspired by his dedication, I, too, vowed that I would stand beside him and serve Tea, as its humble Minister of Leaves.
I took upon myself the task of easing the worried, the frustrated, the stressed, and the obsessed into the tranquil spell of the divine little camellia sinensis bush, where they would find themselves in the company of the immortal who, sipping himself into eternity, wrote, “Steam billows, the teapot fragrant. I enter a state of desires diminishing. Within the stillness, a further pleasure. Nothing coarse or superficial. This is drinking tea.”
William Rosenzweig is the co-author of “The Republic of Tea: The Story of the Creation of a Business, as Told Through the Personal Letters of Its Founders,” a book with Mel and Patricia Ziegler about the founding of The Republic of Tea, an award-winning specialty tea company that is credited with creating the premium tea category in the United States. Currently, he is the co-founder and Partner at Physic Ventures. He leads the firm’s venture origination activities and supports portfolio companies in the areas of entrepreneurial leadership, business design, brand strategy, and consumer marketing. Rosenzweig currently works closely with EnergyHub, GoodGuide, Pharmaca Integrative Pharmacy, Own, Recyclebank, Revolution Foods, and Yummly. He has played key leadership roles at Nakamichi, the TED Conference, Odwalla, Leapfrog Toys, Brand New Brands, Hambrecht Vineyards and Wineries, Kingdom of Herbs, and winetasting.com.
Introduction by Mel Ziegler, on the 20th Anniversary of the Republic of Tea
Twenty years ago in America, as Kleenex is to tissues, Lipton’s was to tea. A 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 nuance, tradition, tales, and delights—it is, after all, the world’s second oldest product—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 appointed myself Minister of Leaves. My wife, friend, and lover, Patricia, installed herself as the 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 ideas, sketches, musings, ruminations back and forth as we negotiated 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 that the faxes had to be published. Morton Janklow made the proper arrangements, and the book advance funded the Republic of Tea’s treasury.
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 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 a sip-by-sip alternative to the rampant 24/7 gulp-by-gulp madness then just beginning to grip the land. “Make 21 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 a shelf or two at the most. 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 discovered it in a bookstore, read it voraciously, and bought a ticket to California to meet us. “This book changed my life,” he proclaimed. “Would you be interested in selling the company?”
Having just had a baby, we decided nothing could make us happier than going home with our Tea Mind and spending open-ended time with our new daughter and her four-year-old brother. 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 was humble and smart. He was eager to see the full vision of The Republic of Tea realized. The book became his 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 is no longer on mere shelves but in a section all its own, a section 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 spread the word about the “sip by sip” way of life.
Thanks to the Rubins, 20 years later the company is as true as it was on day one, and tea has earned its rightful place as a balm in world that needs it more than ever.
Mel Ziegler is co-founder of Banana Republic and the Republic of Tea. Prior to his entrepreneurial endeavors, he was a journalist at the Miami Herald and the San Francisco Chronicle, and wrote for New York Magazine. His new book is Wild Company: The Untold Story of Banana Republic, which he co-authored with his artist wife. It tells the tale of how the couple took $1,500 and no business experience to turn a wild idea into a company that would become the international retail colossus Banana Republic. By re-imagining military surplus as safari and expedition wear, they created a world that captured the zeitgeist for a generation and spoke to the creativity, adventure, and independence in customers.
Click here to buy the book.