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My illustrious neighbors, New York tea packers in France.

Tea & Coffee has divided the world into various bits and pieces, to aid its writers in digestion--my territory is continental Europe, from which I daren't stray. So why am I am now going on about a New York City tea packing company?

The answer is to be found in a small hill-top town only a few kilometers, even fewer miles, from where I am located in southern France. Perched there in their vacation home, literally on the ramparts of the town walls, are Richard (Dick) and Marguerite (Rita) Sanders, the management team of Grace Tea Company, Ltd. For me the Sanders are neighbors, even though I know they more fully belong in Manhattan.

Grace Tea, of course, is one of the less-than half dozen tea companies that apparently, absolutely must be mentioned in any serious discussion of fine tea in America. Such, for but one example, is the case in James Norwood Pratt's ever delightful book "The Tea Lover's Treasury."

Pratt's references to Grace are legion, and in prose that leaves one thirsting for his own favorites from the Grace Rare Tea line--the Winey Keemun, the Formosa Oolong Supreme, the Connoisseur 'house' blend, the Before the Rain Jasmine (with a Pouchong rather than green tea base) and the Grace Superb Darjeeling 6000 (second flush from estates over 6000 feet in altitude).

For those inquiring, the Keemun is authentic--a rarity in itself, being a blend of five to seven teas that is reformulated annually In order to maintain its body and wine-like depth--and the Winey version is aged for a year; the Connoisseur blend is a selection of highly respected teas from China, Taiwan, Ceylon and India.

The company is deemed an honored standout for its Darjeeling, and in fact may be among only two or three U.S. companies selling 100% Darjeeling to a national clientele. As well, although Grace is noted for its black teas, it does indeed proffer a Pinhead Gunpowder.

According to Dick Sanders, who it turns out is so unassuming about his products that one must corner him to speak about Grace, the company continues to sell only loose teas of classic (Asia) origins, exclusively hand plucked and of orthodox manufacture, in half pound tins and two ounce samplers. No teabags, no flavored or herbal teas, no novelties, no roster of hundreds of teas ("No decaf tea, either," he explains. "There's no such thing as salt-free caviar or low-fat foie gras, and in context of classic loose teas, no such thing as decaffeination.") In sum, Grace remains a unique source for a consistent supply of a few no-nonsense, gourmet-status teas

Dick and Rita run Grace Tea from the second floor of a loft building on 17th Street in New York, one of the handful of remaining tea packers in Manhattan. There they see to the storage, blending, and packing of the teas. The company keeps about two tons of tea on hand, bringing in chests as needed. Blending is solely by hand, on site. The Sanders attribute the high reputation of their teas to careful control of origins, to rigid orthodoxy in handling and packing, to an art of blending they keep under lock and key, to an emphasis on a select range of products.

"We seem to be something of an insiders name among American tea adepts," explains Sanders. "Which is strange to us as we purposefully don't offer varieties. Yes, we are in the top 1% of quality for the U.S. market, but the product line refers to basic teas, albeit very fine, with well established production."

Sanders bought Grace Tea from Frank Cho, one of his Harvard classmates, in 1979. Cho had founded the company in 1959. Dick Sanders himself has had a career in food area products, as president of Borden's Special Products Division, president of Nodaway Valley Foods Co. and also of his own China Bowl Co, specializing in quality Chinese food products, which he recently sold. Dick is a native of Southern California but grew up in China and the Philippines

The rule at Grace would seem to be, "keep it first class, but keep it simple." The teas are all packed in the same black lacquer rectangular tins with the clipper ship logo up front engraved on text paper. The packaging won the annual Aesthetics Award in 1980 from the National Assoc. of Specialty Food Trade (NASFT). The teas themselves won the NASFT's Distinguished Recognition Award in 1986.

The Sanders sell Grace Rare Teas through specialty retail stores, by mail and to hotel and restaurant services. About 60% of sales are through stores, 35% by mail, 5% to hotels and restaurants. More than 80% of their sales are "on the Coasts" meaning both East and West. The teas are not cheap, retailing at about $25.00 per pound. The mail market is supported by four mailings each year to a national prospect list of fewer than 5000 names. To drink a cup of Grace tea out-of-home, try the Four Seasons restaurant or the Stanhope Hotel in Manhattan, the Windsor Court Hotel in New Orleans, or the Campton Court in San Francisco.

Best sellers for Grace? The inimitable Winey Keemun, first and foremost, followed jointly by the Darjeeling 6000 and the Connoisseur blend, then Grace's Earl Grey and Assam (an Irish Breakfast that's also termed 100% of the appellation). Sales have been consistently expanding by about 20% per year. Volume has grown eleven fold in the past decade.

Despite this kind of track record, the Sanders show a few telltale signs of frustration when it comes to marketing their teas.

Richard Sanders: "Supermarkets are out-of-question for small specialty companies like ours, we must rely on the specialty store. We know that classic loose teas have only about 2% of the market, but nevertheless that can be an animated segment, it can and ought to grow. But until retailers show interest in promoting the finest tea, its dead. The specialty store is the key, but in general it's just not performing. Too often the retailer is plopping the tea tin on the shelf and just walking away."

Tea & Coffee: "May we quote you?"

Richard Sanders: "Please do! And you can add that to our mutual loss, we are finding that too many mainstream specialty retailers don't really give a damn about quality teas, coffees, OK, accessories, yes, but not about real teas They're not giving tea a fighting chance!"

PHOTO : New York tea packers in France--Dick and Rita Sanders, for numerous enthusiasts, their Grace products are the embodiment of America's very longstanding and rich tradition in fine teas.
COPYRIGHT 1992 Lockwood Trade Journal Co., Inc.
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Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:teas of Richard and Marguerite Sanders' Grace Tea Company Ltd.
Publication:Tea & Coffee Trade Journal
Date:Jan 1, 1992
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