Here is the personal story of how the Bigelow family acquired the beautiful Charleston Tea Plantation as told by David C. Bigelow in his book, My Mother Loved Tea.
The story began with a phone call from one of the owners, someone our family had been friends with for over thirty years. He asked if we would be willing to come to the rescue. After eighteen years of operation, he explained, he and his partner could no longer make a go of it and were going to have to close the gates. The plantation would soon be up for auction by the bank. We knew nothing about growing tea; much less running a farm, but our friend assured us that were we to be successful at auction, he would continue working with us. His credentials were impeccable; his knowledge of tea tasting and tea growing was vast.
But the rest of the story was bleak. There were virtually no assets other than the acreage and the tea bushes. There was an old factory building, a tea harvesting machine and a brand of tea, "American Classic" that the two co-owners had been making and selling to local grocery chains for some eighteen years. The problem here was that they hadn't produced any tea in several years. "American Classic" tea had been out of stock in the local stores for a long time. As we came to learn much later, it was very popular and had been sorely missed by a great many people. When we added it all up, there was a fair amount of money going out and no money coming in. Our first impulse was obviously to say no. To add to the problem, the prevailing bid at auction we were told was liable to be fairly high because there were two other interested parties, one of whom was a real-estate developer. When we heard the word "developer", our tea instincts kicked in. Our oldest daughter, Lori, was particularly concerned. She felt that, as good tea people, we couldn't stand by and watch this one of a kind "gem" disappear. The thought of those tea bushes being tilled into oblivion so that another real-estate development might take their place was just too much for all of us to bear!
But how could we justify this purchase? How could we make this beautiful farm financially healthy? The answer didn't lie in the tea. Even if we sold all the tea the plantation could produce, there would still be a major shortfall of income. How about tourism? Our friend told us that over the eighteen years they had run the business, there had been significant interest in the farm shown by both local residents as well as tourists. In many instances, bus loads of people had come out to the plantation to enjoy the beautiful setting as well as to hear lectures and see demonstrations on how tea is made. We were told they loved it.
After some soul searching, we decided to say "yes". If nothing else, we would have the satisfaction of having saved this remarkable place from destruction. Once gone, this plantation would never be again. Tourism, we decided, would have to be the answer to making this farm a going proposition. After all, wasn't the city of Charleston one of the top tourist destinations in the U.S.?
And so it was that Eunice and I went to the auction and, as predicted, the bidding was fast and furious. We had agreed beforehand on a price beyond which we were not going to go and that figure was coming up fast. Fortunately, not too far from our top number, the other parties dropped out. We had "bought the farm" in a manner of speaking. It was a very proud moment for many of us at the Bigelow Tea Company. We had become quite attached to the idea of saving this rare piece of real estate.
Today, we're happy to report that the Charleston Tea Plantation is alive and well and thriving in America. "American Classic Tea" is back in the local stores and selling very well. It is a remarkably popular product with a very unique and delicious flavor all its own. In addition, the plantation has a brand new factory equipped with the latest state of the art tea making equipment. More importantly, the tea factory features a 150 foot long glassed in gallery perched three feet above the production floor where, as visitors stroll along, they can observe all the different processes that it takes to make tea. And, in case we're not making tea on any given day, we have three large TV screens mounted along the gallery that demonstrate the entire tea making process.
In addition, there is a beautiful gift shop where you can sample "American Classic Tea" iced tea as well as find lots of lovely tea related items. For those who want to see tea bushes up-close and personal, we have an old-fashioned style trolley that will take you on a ride around the farm.
One final note. We opened in mid-2006 and as of the middle of 2008, we are rapidly approaching our 100,000th visitor. The plantation is slowly moving toward financial stability. That's certainly good news. But the best news of all is that tea drinkers from everywhere are getting to see a tea bush for the first time, taking the tour and learning things they never knew about their favorite beverage. They're loving the gift shop, and for that matter, the whole experience. We believe that over time, the Charleston Tea Plantation will become a must-see destination for tea lovers from all over the world.