A cup of tea
Bill Todd demonstrates the proper way to taste test tea. | Rob Dicker~Sun-Times Media
Holland Tea Merchants
Address: 7311 W. Madison St., Forest Park, IL 60130
Phone: (800) 747-8327
Hours: 10-6 Monday-Wednesday & Friday; 10-8 Thursday; 10-5 Saturday
Prices: $10-$100 depending quantity and type of tea
Updated: August 20, 2012 11:25AM
FOREST PARK — Business is always brewing at Todd & Holland Tea Merchants in Forest Park.
With 192 of the finest teas from around the world, River Forest residents Bill and Janet Todd, along with friend Marianne Richards, have been hosting tea aficionados for more than 16 years, including the last eight at 7311 Madison St.
Like many kids, Bill Todd, who grew up in Oak Park/River Forest, started drinking iced tea as a teenager.
His senses got an awakening 25 years ago.
“That was the first time I had stand alone [tea],” said Todd. “I said, ‘This is great. Where’s it been my whole life?’”
Buoyed by their love for tea but no retail experience, Bill and Janet Todd decided to carve out their own niche business in 1994.
“We were self-educated,” Todd stated. “We spent time trying to find out where the best (tea) came from and how to get a hold of it.”
Their first shop was tucked away on the third floor of an attorney’s office at 417 Lathrop. Two years later, they expanded into a store front at 7577 Lake St. in River Forest.
About the same time, search engines on the newly popular internet were listing Todd & Holland at the top of all tea retailers. That paid off significant dividends.
Operations catapulted in 1999 when a story featuring the tea business ran in the New York Times’ Food section.
“Our mail-order sales increased 100 percent and so did our foot traffic,” said Janet Todd. “You can advertise all you want, but there’s nothing like two columns in the New York Times. It gives credence to the business.
“We stayed up one whole night packaging orders. We had a lot of calls from New York; you could tell by the accent.”
Moving the store to 7311 W. Madison St. in Forest Park in 2004 was another good move for the Todds.
“It’s been a win-win for us here,” said Bill Todd. “Forest Park is more business friendly than Oak Park or River Forest.”
Customers can see and smell the teas displayed on a series of wooden shelves display in the 3,000-square-foot space.
Wearing several hats is a prerequisite for working at the store. The Todds and their staff are educators, sales people and adventurers.
Bill Todd estimates the mix of veteran and virgin sippers is 60-40. Educating the consumer is paramount.
Two teas are brewed daily for sampling. Depending on their interests, some customers will sip tea in the store for a half-hour, others hang out for several hours.
Their customer list tops 10,000 tea drinkers across the country and abroad. While mail order accounts for roughly 60 percent of business, clients come from all corners of metro Chicago, southern Wisconsin and northwest Indiana.
“We’re a destination,” stated Bill Todd.
“We had a couple come in and say, ‘We’re your customers from California,’” said Janet Todd. “Sometimes people are on vacation and they stop in. They might have relatives in the area or a kid who goes to school here.
“We had a lady come in from Queens, and we ended up fixing 12 different teas. There was a couple from St. Louis; they spent the afternoon and stayed until we closed the store,” Janet Todd said.
“We get a lot of converts,” said Bill Todd. “Once they’ve tried loose leaf, they don’t go back.
“They don’t come into the store, unless they are interested. We try to find what they drink and generally it’s black or flavored. We’ll find a similar match in loose leaf and they’ll say, ‘Oh, that’s much different,’” Bill Todd said.
Tea lovers come from all walks of life and economic backgrounds. Connoisseurs and casual drinkers share a desire to expand their palate by sampling new flavors.
Discerning drinkers’ desire for premium and rare teas has the Todds trekking to the Far East and other locations to keep the cupboard properly stocked.
This requires an adroitly trained salesman’s eye and a touch of James Bond navigation.
“You have an itinerary, but it doesn’t always work that way,” Bill Todd stated. “I was bounced from a plane in Taipei and had extra time. I had a tea book and I asked for oolong tea. They sent a car and we drove four hours up in the hills and found a tea master. He makes 15 kilos a year of Black Iron which is a darker amber oolong which comes from the center of the island.”
Bill Todd brings that enthusiasm — and tea — all the way back to Forest Park.
“We’re a customer-driven business,” he stated. “We love what we do. Having customers continue to come back is always satisfying.”