By Bob Fish
It was a November day in 2018. I was at my first ‘Making it in Michigan’ Conference and Marketplace Trade Show in East Lansing, thoroughly enjoying myself. I had just struck up a conversation with John Fraser and his son as they handed out samples of their namesake Fraser Tea at their booth. John had a light, fresh, and very approachable demeanor, combined with a seriousness about the product that was almost overwhelming (in a good way).
At first, I was lured in by the names of their tea blends, names like Cream Earl Grey, Turmeric Ginger Green, and Watermelon Oolong. I skeptically sampled the offerings… could they possibly taste as good as their names suggested? Sure enough, they all tasted great.
Their booth was busy, but I was intrigued, so I started peppering John with questions. This wasn’t my first tea buying quest over the last 24 years, and I always have a lot of questions. He never got flustered, he always smiled, and he wasn’t “preachy” about his product, just very informative. He was already my kind of people. We exchanged a lot of words but the ones that stood out for me were: Local, Quality, Organic, Fair Trade, and Millennial Profiles.
These guys didn’t know it, but they just hit a ‘Home Run’ with me. You see, when I go to a trade show, I write down a few “trigger” words that I am listening for. The Fraser brothers hit everyone. In fact, this was actually a ‘Grand Slam’, now that I think about it. John and I got comfortable together pretty quickly too or, at least, I did. He still looked a little skeptical. If I was in his position, I might be too.
We were about to wrap up when he casually mentioned that he and his brothers take trips to origin countries from time to time to confirm that the Farms and Estates are doing what they say they are in terms of treating the Planet and People right. He said the next trip was coming up in February, and right there and then I asked, “Can I go?” I think he laughed, but I said, “No seriously can I go? I’m into that.” To which he responded with a long, slow and uncertain ‘suuure’. “Oh, I forgot to mention,” I said, “my wife goes too.” He just smiled, and he might have raised his eyebrow. I was moving on to the next booth, and I am sure that John thought he would never see me again.
I already knew two things: 1) I was going, and 2) we needed to do business with these guys.
I had two people to call. First, Marilynn Funk, the BaM (Bob and Mike McFall) Chief of Staff, to arrange to have an ‘on-site’ meeting at Fraser Tea. I always inspect the operations of any vendor before doing business with them. Next call: Michelle. Keep in mind, we were leaving for Zambia in a few weeks, and she was knee deep in planning that trip, making sure we had all of our ducks in a row with visas and dog sitters and clean laundry. Here I was asking about someplace in Asia in February. But Michelle and I have this goal to get to 150 countries in our lifetime. This certainly checked that box for us. And we are both passionate about the mission of finding and helping farmers with a strong social and environmental mission. So even though the scope of our travel was beginning to feel overwhelming, she was all in.
Next step was the onsite meeting and to begin building the relationship with the Fraser Brothers. An ‘onsite’ visit can make or break a vendor. It’s the opportunity to look behind the curtain, so to speak. We pulled up and it was clean and tidy. That was a good sign. We walked in and it was clean and tidy. Even better sign. We were welcomed by the full cadre of Fraser brothers: John, Tom, and Bernie (READ: Meet the Frasers), sampled more tea, listened to their philosophies on tea, toured the warehouse, and watched the blending and bagging process.
Two big takeaways from our visit: first, these guys were everything they sold themselves as and more. Their passion for the quality of product is so strong you almost can’t believe it, but it’s real. Second, they were willing to work with us on our blends at BIGGBY. That was important because we have some profiles that are very popular. They were willing to match and better them by making them organic and Fair Trade. Third, the facility was immaculate, the kind of clean where you would use the words ‘you could eat off the floor.’ I have been in a lot of tea blending facilities, even one owned by Starbucks in Seattle, and they are always messy, with all kinds of tea dust and particulates floating around… not these guys. If I had thought I wanted to business with them before, they only made me want it more now!
They told us that their next trip was going to be to Nepal, and they were concerned that we didn’t know what we were getting into. They were looking at Michelle and saying things like “it’ll be very rustic. No really, VERY rustic.” We were able to convince them that we were all in. So, we spent the next few months planning out the details for the trip.
The centerpiece would involve farm visits in the countries of Nepal and India. We would spend a day in Kathmandu, then a flight and a long drive into the foothills of the Himalayan Mountain range to visit Nepal’s first organic tea farm, Kanchanjangha Tea Estate (KTE) in Phidum. From there, a long drive to the Darjeeling Region of India to visit the Glenburn Tea Estate. On the way back home, we’d stop for 24 hours to soak up a little of the scene in Seoul, South Korea.
In the end the Fraser Brothers may have been right, we didn’t know what we were getting into, but read on and you’ll be the judge.
Photo Credit: Saurav Thapa Shrestha
A quick note on opportunity… many folks ask me ‘Bob, how do you know when there is opportunity?’ My answer is always the same. We all have opportunities that are crossing our paths every day, but you can only see them when you have a vision for where you are going. Having Vision is like the vinegar you pour on ‘invisible ink’ to reveal the words…. making opportunities obvious and clear. To the outside world those opportunities can often appear random and haphazard particularly when the Vision is not obvious or is beyond most folks’ comfort zone. I would strongly encourage anybody that wants to ‘find opportunity’, not to invest time in looking for the opportunities themselves, but instead to invest their time in creating a Vision for their Life. When you do that, the opportunities become obvious.