Way back in the early 1970s, when his hair was halfway down his back and his beard was full and the business degree from Adelphi was fresh in his pocket, New Yorker John Hay was roaming the Rockies with a friend named Mo Siegel. The two of them were picking wild herbs and pipe-dreaming about getting rich. More immediately, they and their wives had to make it through the winter.
The two women sewed together 10,000 muslin bags. The men packed the boxes. And then the four loaded the works into an old VW bus and started hitting every place in Colorado they could think of, selling the little packets for $1 each. In a few months, they had $10,000 to tide them over his winter.
That was in 1971. This year Hay and Siegel expect their Celestial Seasoning herbal tea company in Boulder, Colo., with its 250 employees to gross $10 million.
Until Celestial Seasonings was incorporated in 1972, no American tea company offered herbal tea blends. Most of the $600 million Americans were spending annually on tea was for black tea, the fermented leaves of a small evergreen tree found in India and China. Drinking herbal tea - which, for the most part, contains no caffeine, and thus is touted by health food fanciers - invariably meant buying a pound of rose hips from the druggist and steeping it in hot water.
Hay was essentially a rich kid from Long Island who had gone into the Marines and Knew that the military was not his life's calling, Siegel had grown up in the Rockies and was picking herbs as a boy. The two met out West and heard about an old orchard that was begging for an owner. They envisioned a great dried-fruit business that might net them a fortune, but the deal fell through.
And so they headed for the herbs in the hills, and when their initial sachels of herbs sold so well, they stepped up their pace. They collected herbs - 90 in all - from around the world: tilia flowers, skullcap petals, Chinese star anise, eucalptus leaves, bergamot oil, passion flowers, lemon grass and the like.
Forty of these they packaged individually in tea bags as simple herbal teas. But the big coup was the 12 blends they created, with names like Red Zinger and Sleepytime and Lemon Mist and Pelican Punch. They put them (by hand) into colorfully designed boxes franked with quotations from Albert Eistein and Martin Luther ("Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to peices. I would still plant my apple tree") and Churchilland Shakespeare, and sent them out into the world. Pass the wisdom please.
In 1972 they sold $60,000 worth. A year later they went up to $300,000, and the next year $1 million. Last year America bought $6 million in Celestial Seasonings herbal teas sand Red Zinger became the country's most popular herbal tea blend.
For beardless, neatly-coiffed John Hay, the 32-year-old great-great-grandson of the former Secretary of State, the tea took off because "it tastes good."
That's probably part of the reason. Add to that the growing organic mass market for the product. Not to mention marketing.
"We just decided a long time ago," says Siegel, "that we'd create a product image that was as creative as possible."
Owners of health food stores - still the main outlet for herbal teas, although a few Celestial Seasonings products are appearing on Safeway shelves these days - report that more customers buy the teas for the package design than the ingredients. (One woman in New Jersey buys the packages, jettisons the tea and then wraps toys in the boxes for her children.)
The Red Zinger box, for instance, has a tea cup sitting on a table in an old country kitchen, with golden lightning bolts descending from the sky. Sleepytime has a friendly bear snoozing in front of his fireplace with a cat sitting at his feet. Morning Thunder, which contains Matte, a Brazilian holly plant more caffeine potent than coffee, has a bison charging across a desert as the sun sets. The back of the package has a paragraph culled from Einstein's musings on the mysterious, and the description of the tea concludes: "This blend has the power of thousand charging buffaloes - so when your get 'em up won't, Morning Thunder will."
"Our biggest problem," says Siegel, "is getting product. A lot of these herbs aren't so easy to find." Susan Patterson, the company's director of herb purchasing, spends five months a year searching for the latest international herb buy.
"And then there's blending them," says Hay. "you want to mix uppers and downers. Black tea is a real stimulant. We use it in a few blends. Chamomile puts you to sleep. You wouldn't want them together. we spend a lot of time working on blends."
Meanwhile, Celestial Seasonings marches on. Under construction in Boulder is a new solar-heated packaging plant. The company is about to offer employees (who make up to $6 an hour filling boxes with tea) a stock option plan, and hopes to go public in 1980. It also sponsors the nine-day Red Zinger Bicycle Classic, an annual event with $40,000 in prizes.
Only six years ago Hay and Siegel were groping for a company name, and Siegel got a call from an old Boulder high school friend, a girl who called herself Celestial Seasonings.
"Sure there are a lot of flakey people involved in health food stuff," says Hay. "But once they get behind you, they're really dedicated. They'll make some real sacrifices for you."
Like Hay's ex-wife Beth. She designed most of the boxes early on, when hay and Siegel couldn't afford to pay her. So she agreed to take a mere one-quarter cent per box as a royalty for her art.
"She's living on an island somewhere of Spain," says Hay. "I hear she's really comfortable."