Smile Politely

An interview with Hilary Porter of Walnut Street Tea Company

There’s nothing quite like settling down at home with a cup of hot tea or coffee on a cold, wintery day. That is especially true during a pandemic where most of our time is spent inside passing away the time.

Thankfully, Walnut Street Tea Company has the inventory to keep you supplied all year long. Join me as we hear from owner Hilary Porter about the changes to the store from COVID, “under the radar” drinks, and what is inside a surprise box.

Smile Politely: Could you introduce yourself to the readers of Smile Politely?

Hilary Porter: My name is Hilary Porter, and I am the current owner of Walnut Street Tea Company after purchasing it in 2016.

Shelf with many teas where Irish Breakfast is prominently displayed with a cost of $1.81 per ounce. Photo provided by Walnut Street Tea Company.

Photo provided by Walnut Street Tea Company.

SP: Can you tell us a little about Walnut Street Tea Company, including what types of products are sold at the store?

Porter: Walnut Street Tea Company is a retail store specializing in tea, coffee, and related foods and accessories. We carry a large variety of tea brands as well as over 100 loose leaf teas and over 50 gourmet coffees.

SP: How do you decide what gets stocked at Walnut Street Tea Company?

Porter: Our stock is curated from 40 years of favorites as well as continued testing of new products.

SP: Where do you look to find new items to sell in your store?

Porter: We work with a variety of vendors. We also get a lot of great leads from customers.

Teacup-shaped coaster which says Life is Short, Drink More Tea. Photo provided by Walnut Street Tea Company.

Photo provided by Walnut Street Tea Company.

SP: Are there types of tea or coffee that are most popular during the winter months?

Porter: Coffee and tea is such a personal thing. There are the overall favorites like English Breakfast and Earl Grey, but there are also seasonal favorites like chai with its various spice blends that pair perfectly with cold winter days.

It is the same with coffee. We see spikes in certain flavors during the winter months like hazelnut and Highlander Grogg, but people like to stick to their old faithfuls like Tip of the Andes, French Roast, and Colombian.

SP: How has the pandemic affected event planning for Walnut Street Tea Company?

Porter: We used to host tea tasting and Afternoon Tea events with Sylvia’s Irish Inn, but the pandemic environment has forced us to cancel those events in the foreseeable future.

Chocolate on a shelf with brands such as Ghirardelli, Green and Black’s, and Taza on display. Photo provided by Walnut Street Tea Company.

Photo provided by Walnut Street Tea Company.

SP: Has your ability to stock certain products or your stocking choices changed during COVID-19?

Porter: With shipping capacities at an all-time high, we have seen delays in how quickly we can restock our products. We have shifted our stocking focus to our main consumable products and pulled back on many of our non-consumable items.

SP: Have you noticed some items get more popular while people spend most of their time at home?

Porter: People are drinking more tea and coffee at home instead of the office. So naturally, we have seen our current customers increase their buying in these categories as well as gaining many new customers who now find themselves in need of a good at home brew!

A variety of hard candy sticks on a shelf with the butterscotch, tangerine, and bubblegum labels shown. Photo provided by Walnut Street Tea Company.

Photo provided by Walnut Street Tea Company.

SP: Have you had to shift your business in the pandemic? If so, can you talk about the ways it has changed your store, your staff, and your business?

Porter: We have had to shift to more online options: ordering for pick-up, curbside, local delivery, and more. It has kept us busy to say the least. With more channels to manage in order to give our wonderful, loyal customers options, the same sales volume simply requires more work and effort from our staff.

Unfortunately, we have had to stop in-store coffee and tea samples which we know our customers enjoyed. Customers used to be able to serve themselves from our bulk coffee and tea products. We now bag everything for them. These changes have been embraced by most, and we are so grateful for that support.

SP: What is a change that came from the pandemic that will stay with your business for awhile?

Porter: Well, the “pre-bagging” may stay in some iteration as it has been a welcomed starting point for new customers especially in our tea category.

Photo from Walnut Street Tea Company Facebook page.

SP: What inspired the surprise boxes that popped up in December? Are they still being offered?

Porter: These actually were born in the spring of 2020 and continued into December. This product by far kept us going during the initial shutdowns of March, April, and May — and was hugely popular for Mother’s Day. They were actually inspired by a customer who asked us to just put together a goodie box for a certain dollar amount, and we ran with it. They are still being offered and will continue to be for the foreseeable future.

A collection of Frontier Soups soup mixes named: Corn Chowder Mix, Split Pea Soup Mix, Chicken Stew Mix, and Apple Sausage and Bean Mix. Photo provided by Walnut Street Tea Company.

Photo provided by Walnut Street Tea Company.

SP: Is there tea or coffee you’d recommend to adventurous people willing to try something new?

Porter: Golly, that is so hard to answer because people have such variations in what they consider adventurous. So I will answer with some teas and coffee that fly “under the radar.” In tea, Lapsang Souchong which is a smoked tea and Pu-erh tea which is an aged tea. In coffee, I would recommend Tanzanian Peaberry and our newest addition French Roast Umoja.

Walnut Street Tea Company window with their logo on the side that says Tea, Coffee, and Specialty Foods. A rainbow of tea kettles are seen behind the window logo. Photo provided by Walnut Street Tea Company.

Photo provided by Walnut Street Tea Company.

SP: What are the ways people can buy items from Walnut Street Tea Company during the pandemic?

Porter: Our store is open for in-store masked shopping with a five-shopper limit from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday. We are open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday. You can order online for pick-up, curbside, in-store, local delivery, or shipping. You can always contact us over the phone for information or to place an order as well.

SP: Is there anything you’d like to say to the Champaign-Urbana community?

Porter: I would like to say from the bottom of my heart: thank you! This community has been so overwhelmingly supportive of small business during the pandemic, and we are grateful for all of our loyal regulars who kept us going during the spring shutdown and for all the new customers who have given us a chance as they found us because of their commitment to shop local in 2020. I cannot say it enough: thank you!

Walnut Street Tea Company
115 S Walnut St
M+T 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Th+F 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Sa 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. 

Photo provided by Walnut Street Tea Company.

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