Steeped in Tradition
Luzianne’s father/son tea masters give Biz a peek behind the curtains of a more than $11 billion industry where family ties run deep.
If you’re pouring yourself a cup of something to quench your thirst today, there’s a good chance it’s tea. Not only is it the second most popular beverage in the world (after water), but consumption of tea here in the U.S. continues to rise.
Americans drank more than 80 billion servings in 2015, and we are now the world’s third largest importer of tea (behind Russia and Pakistan) — bringing in 285 million pounds last year alone, according to the Tea Association of the U.S.A. (USTA).
There’s no sign of that trend stopping, either, as millennials are increasingly taken with tea — 87 percent of them are tea drinkers, says the USTA. All that tea translates into big money — more than $11.5 billion, or 6 percent of all foodservice beverage spend in 2015. That’s good news for tea producers like Lipton (America’s number-one seller), R.C. Bigelow, Hein Celestial, and Twinings, which lead the U.S. tea market in sales, according to MarketRealist.com.
However, there is one particular corner of the market that, though cold, continues to heat up: iced tea, which accounted for 85 percent of all tea consumed in the U.S. last year. At the heart of that sweet spot is Luzianne, America’s No. 2 bag iced tea brand.
Owned by New Orleans-based Reily Foods Company (which also counts Blue Plate, CDM and French Market coffees among its many product lines), Luzianne’s history dates back to 1902, when William B. Reily relocated his wholesale grocery business from Monroe to New Orleans and shifted his focus to coffee and tea. Over the next several decades, iced tea skyrocketed in popularity as more consumers had refrigerators in their homes and turned to iced tea to beat the Southern summer heat.
TOP LEFT- Left to right: Scott and Malcolm Shalders, tea masters at Luzianne. TOP RIGHT- Luzianne’s production facilities at 5601 Chef Menteur Highway in New Orleans. BOTTOM LEFT- In the tasting room all four generations of Shalders tasting spoons are laid out. BOTTOM RIGHT- Scott Shalders inspects tea leaves.
Today, Luzianne employs more than 200 people at their offices and production facilities in New Orleans and Knoxville, Tennessee, and their products are available in 51 percent of grocery markets and nationally at Walmart and Dollar General. In addition to tea bags, Luzianne has expanded its product line to include pour and stir concentrate, ready-to-drink bottles, and even iced tea K-Cups through a partnership with Keurig Green Mountain.
But it takes hard work to ensure that the quality of Luzianne tea remains consistent. That’s where the highly specialized role of tea master comes in. Given that June celebrates National Iced Tea Month, as well as Father’s Day, it seems fitting to profile Luzianne’s father/son duo whose highly trained palates continue a family legacy spanning four generations — and thousands of cups of tea.
The family tea tree
Malcolm Shalders, the director of commodities at Luzianne, remembers making tea even as a six-year-old — and he came by that talent honestly. Shalders came with his family to the U.S. from England at the age of five. His grandfather was a senior buyer for Lipton in Hoboken, New Jersey, and his father spent four years buying tea for Lipton in India before continuing his career in importing and packing tea in the U.S.
There was no question in his mind that he would one day follow in the family footsteps.
“It’s really a nice business. When you’re a kid, and you’re thinking about what you want to do, that’s pretty much it,” he says. “It’s an artistic kind of business, similar to painting. I’ve always loved when you’re developing a blend — it’s very much like that.” He even has the silver tasting spoon that belonged to his grandfather and father before him.
Shalders spent the first 10 years of his career as an importer and a tea buying manager across three companies. He came to Luzianne from upstate New York 21 years ago, where he blended his expertise in hot tea with a new set of skills needed for iced tea.
“It’s a totally different industry within an industry,” he says.
“I think any buyer should be an importer first. You learn because you’re shipping from other countries. You’re learning the problems. A lot of buyers don’t know the quirks of different countries until it’s too late.” – Malcolm Shalders
“I knew the teas already, that wasn’t the hard part… You just have to understand what types of tea to use for that blend. The teas we use here are perfect for iced tea.”
Shalders’ son, Scott, had a slightly different path to the tea business. Though he recalls drinking tea from a Flintstones baby bottle and pretending to drive forklifts of tea chests around with his brother at their grandfather’s warehouse, Scott did entertain the idea of pursuing a career in computer networking. Eventually, however, what was supposed to be just a summer job at Luzianne became a profession once he discovered the lure of the cupping room where tea is tasted and evaluated. That was 13 years ago, and he hasn’t looked back.
Today, Scott is a commodity specialist, and not only a tea master but also Q-certified in Arabica coffee — a designation earned through 22 grueling tests of the palate.
Malcolm jokes, “He’s got a very good palate, but he can be a pain in the neck! He’s too strict!”
An exacting process
The journey of a tea leaf from its country of origin to the Luzianne teabag in your pitcher is a long one, and the Shalders have a hand in nearly every step. The father/son duo constantly monitor global agricultural reports to keep a close eye on anything that might affect their imports, which hail from South America, Africa and Asia.
“You have to have that information to know what’s going on in the country, because draughts or too much rain — both affect tea,” says Malcolm. “It’s like a hedge. If you have too much rain, it just flushes but there’s not a whole lot of quality in it… You have to watch that, and you may have to boost another origin to make up for it.”
Both father and son have spent time working in all aspects of the business, which they think is critical to their success. “I think any buyer should be an importer first,” says Malcolm. “You learn because you’re shipping from other countries. You’re learning the problems. A lot of buyers don’t know the quirks of different countries until it’s too late.”
For Malcolm, that might mean always buying three times the inventory he needs from Africa because of inevitable delays in shipping. “You’ve got to watch things like that,” he says.
TOP LEFT- The Luzianne warehouse stores approximately 11,000 bags of tea. TOP RIGHT- Tea bagging and boxing machines produce 107 tea bags per minute. BOTTOM-A Luzianne employee checks the weight of larger tea bags sold to restaurants.
Once Malcolm has bought and contracted a certain tea, Luzianne begins receiving samples for approval. He and Scott analyze those samples for dust, density, clarity and taste. When the full shipment arrives, they will draw six random samples from the containers — each container is a 20-bag pallet, or more than 40,000 pounds of tea. If they aren’t satisfied with what they have received, “it goes right back,” says Malcolm. “We’ve been doing business for a long time. They may not see what we see, but they won’t argue.”
The Shalders taste their randomly drawn samples for consistency then put the tea into inventory. Next, Malcolm creates blends based on what has been tasted. A sample is taken after the blend is created, and then it is tasted again in teabag form.
“What we are checking at each step is to make sure nothing happened in between those steps,” explains Scott, who tastes five tables of tea and coffee a day. With 32 cups per table, that’s approximately 160 cups a day.
The goal of the tea blend is consistency and clarity. “The end cup has to be consistent,” says Malcolm. “When it leaves here, it’s really good.”
One of the most significant developments that the Shalders are currently observing in the industry is the growing demand for ‘traceability.’ “Everybody wants to know where it came from,” says Malcolm. “It’s not a hard thing in the industry because we can trace it back to the garden without a problem. But that seems to be the big thing.”
Another issue tea producers are grappling with is the cost of ‘plucking’ the tea, as laborers move away from the tea industry to find better jobs in cities. “They are having a hard time holding people there to do this labor,” says Malcolm. While automation will solve the problem in some tea producing countries, others are restricted by factors such as geography. “Probably 20 percent of the world won’t be able to automate,” says Malcolm. “India is too hilly to do anything like that by machine. That will be one thing on the growing side that is a challenge.”
“I look at it as a family because we know all the tea suppliers. I’ve known them since I was eight.” – Scott Shalders
On a positive note, consumers, particularly millennials, are increasingly attracted to the health benefits of tea, something the Shalders are keen to promote. Though many people associate green tea with health, Malcolm asserts that both green and black are very healthy. “It has always been that green tea is the one people look at as far as health because it’s easier to measure antioxidants in green tea,” says Malcolm. “But black has a lot too, it is just harder to measure. All tea is good for you!”
The Shalders also note that millennial consumers are more interested in specialty teas. “They like the different tastes, because there are so many different teas,” says Malcolm. “There are probably 1,200 different teas you can get from all over the world.”
He and Scott do lament the change in certain aspects of tea culture. “It’s an art,” says Scott. “In China and Japan, they took time in preparing tea. It was a ritual, a ceremony. Now we put it in a pod and into a machine.”
“A lot of people just don’t want to take the time,” adds Malcolm. “I remember my uncle couldn’t believe it when he had to drink tea with a teabag!”
A tightly knit community
Both father and son value the close camaraderie among fellow tea professionals. “I’ve grown up with all my suppliers,” says Malcolm. “We’ve known each other for 40 years, and they really don’t change. They may change companies, but they don’t leave the business. At my first convention, when I was 25 or 26, I ran into the secretary at Lipton who got the Telex when I was born. So that’s how old the industry is. It’s very small.”
“I look at it as a family because we know all the tea suppliers,” adds Scott. “I’ve known them since I was eight.”
And while Malcolm admits that it may have been “hard to get used to at first,” he thoroughly enjoys working alongside his son every day. “He really knows what he is doing.”
Scott couldn’t agree more. “I think it’s easier working with him. We discuss everything and we can get the job done better.”
Malcolm doesn’t see retirement anywhere on the horizon — he even appears in Luzianne’s latest television commercial. “Tea is both my hobby and my job,” he says. Scott feels the same, whether he’s meticulously tasting a table of tea in the office or brewing special Ceylon with friends at home.
For the Shalders, Father’s Day has a special and unique significance.
When Scott was three years old, he was diagnosed with leukemia. At the age of six, he relapsed and needed a bone marrow transplant. He spent a month in an isolation unit at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, and the family was thrilled when Scott’s younger brother, Nick, was found to be a donor match.
As Malcolm recalls, “Scott had chemotherapy, radiation – they broke all the cells down to nothing. We kept watching them every day, testing to see if they were coming back. They were hoping the cells would start growing and reproducing. His counts started coming on Father’s Day. That was 26 years ago. I am so very proud of him because he went through an awful lot back then, and to get to where he is today is fantastic. That’s my Father’s Day. I think of it every year.”