R.C. Bigelow, Inc. History

201 Black Rock Turnpike
Fairfield, Connecticut 06432

Telephone: (203) 334-1212
Fax: (203) 334-4751

Private Company
Incorporated: 1945
Employees: 350
Sales: $80 million (2001 est.)
NAIC: 311920 Coffee and Tea Manufacturing

Company Perspectives:

Founded in 1945 by Ruth Campbell Bigelow, R.C. Bigelow, Inc. is dedicated to being a premier packer of truly fine quality teas.

Key Dates:

Ruth Campbell Bigelow establishes tea business with "Constant Comment."
The company moves to Norwalk, Connecticut.
Son David Bigelow assumes control of the company.
Ruth Bigelow dies.
Company opens a facility in Boise, Idaho.
Company opens a facility in Louisville, Kentucky.
Headquarters moves to Fairfield, Connecticut.

Company History:

R.C. Bigelow, Inc. is one of the leading specialty tea manufacturers in the United States and is known particularly for its flagship brand, "Constant Comment." The Fairfield, Connecticut, business is run by the second and third generations of the Bigelow family. David Bigelow is the chairman of the board and his wife Eunice serves as a vice-president. Daughters Cynthia and Lori have also assumed leading roles in the company's operations. In recent years, Bigelow's product lines have expanded beyond tea to include flavored coffees as well as honey spreads.

Company Founder's Beginnings As an Interior Decorator: 1920s

The founder of Bigelow, Ruth Campbell Bigelow, was born in 1896. After attending a design school in Rhode Island she moved to New York City during World War I to continue her education, supporting herself by taking classified ads at the New York Times and working in department stores. She got married in 1920 and established her own decorating shop. It was a prosperous time in the city and she found her talents for interior decorating in high demand. Within a few years she was able to move to a fashionable location at Madison and 72nd Street, a corner location where she had two full floors at her disposal. In addition to her work in Manhattan, she often traveled out of town to decorate her clients' second homes in Palm Beach or summer retreats in Maine.

Ruth was at the height of her career when the stock market crash of 1929 and the ensuing Depression had a devastating effect on so much of Manhattan's wealthy set. Her interior decorating skills were a luxury that few could now afford, and as a result she and her family were forced to retrench as well. She relocated her shop to a second floor location on 52nd Street, with her family living in the back. A similar arrangement prevailed at a 57th Street address that next housed her declining business. To make matters worse, in 1931 her husband lost his publishing job at McGraw Hill and would not be employed again until 1940. The couple's resources dwindled during the 1930s, yet in the early 1940s the two were still able to scrape together $8,000 to buy a four-story brownstone located at 241 E. 60th Street. Although the property was perfect for Ruth's decorating business, offering a two-story storefront and large display windows, it would be put to good use in an entirely different line of endeavor.

Ruth decided to quit the decorating business, according to her son David, because she felt she had to start from scratch with each new client, learning their tastes and preferences. She saw the food business as a more desirable occupation: Once an entrepreneur created a product to sell, the customers either liked it or did not. She and her husband established Wilton House Foods in the early 1940s, naming the business after the Connecticut town where the couple had bought a summer house during the flush times of the 1920s. In order to find a product to sell she wrote to manufacturers of sugar, flour, and other commodities, asking for product formulas, which these companies, with the hope of serving as future suppliers, were only too happy to provide. After considering some possibilities, such as rice pudding, Ruth settled on Chinese seasonings. She discovered that the city's Chinese restaurants used a combination of monosodium glutamate (MSG), salt, and milk sugar in virtually all of their cooking. Installing an industrial blender in the first floor of their brownstone, the Bigelows mixed their Chinese seasonings at night, packing the product into tins as small as two-and-half pounds or canisters as large as 50 pounds. During the day the tins would be delivered to the trading companies on Canal Street. According to David Bigelow, Wilton House Foods expanded its outreach to the other boroughs of New York and eventually sold to the major wholesalers in the city. He estimated that the family sold as much as $3,000 each month from this business, just enough to maintain a comfortable living.

The Bigelows continued to sell Chinese seasonings for many years. At the same time, Ruth became interested in the tea business. Although she cared for tea, she was not enamored with the blends of the time, preferring a milder, smoother drink with more flavor. Through a friend named Mrs. Nealy, she learned of a tea recipe from the Colonial period, involving orange peel and spices mixed with tea, which was then allowed to marinate in a crock in a cold cellar before serving. With no specific recipe in hand, just a concept, Ruth began to experiment, eventually settling on a combination of tea, orange, and spices that she considered the best of the batch. According to David Bigelow, his mother and Mrs. Nealy filled a notebook with possible names for the tea before choosing "Constant Comment." The story behind the origin of the name has become a topic of family, and company, lore. She shared some of the tea with a New York socialite, whom she undoubtedly knew through her interior decorating days. The woman served the tea at a party and later reported to Ruth that it was a source of "constant comments."

Marketing "Constant Comment" in 1945

It was around 1945 that Ruth Bigelow began her efforts to market "Constant Comment." It was packaged loose in four-ounce tins with a simple sepia-tone label. To save money she used a neighborhood letter press shop, relying on clip art of two ladies sipping tea at a table and "Constant Comment" printed at the bottom. Her husband, who had limited artistic ability, was enlisted to hand-paint each label--the two ladies in red, the background in green. For distribution of "Constant Comment" she looked to a nearby department store, Bloomingdale's, which featured a gourmet section. According to her son, she went in cold to convince the store's buyer, a Mr. Simon, to take on her product. Simon had a reputation as a difficult man who was not easily persuaded, yet she prevailed and won a valuable asset in selling her tea. She then began her own marketing campaign to take advantage of the Bloomingdale's connection. Using the social section of New York's newspapers as a resource, she hand-painted letters that she sent to select individuals telling them about "Constant Comment" and letting them know the product was available at Bloomingdale's. In the early days, these letters produced enough sales to keep the venture afloat. Nevertheless, at one point her husband commented to their son, "Don't tell your mother this, but I don't think this tea is going to go anywhere."

David Bigelow, after graduating from Yale in 1948, took a more active role in his parents' business. He maintains that his biggest contribution in that period was to convince his parents that the label for "Constant Comment" needed to be upgraded. He was also instrumental in adding a two-ounce size. By this time "Constant Comment" was sold at several major New York department stores, yet rarely did the company sell more than ten cases a month. It had a single sales representative who covered New England, but in 1948 he resigned the line because the product simply was not selling. Very much like drummers from the 19th century, sales reps of this period pitched a wide variety of products, from corsets to wrought iron. They showed little interest in devoting time to anything that did not sell readily.

Having lost their only salesman, the Bigelows were desperate to find a way to attract new business. Ruth then recalled an experience that happened a few years earlier when she tried to convince a Connecticut grocer to carry "Constant Comment." Busy filling the Saturday morning orders of his regular customers he paid little attention to her sales pitch, but a customer became interested and asked if she could smell the tea, which Ruth at that time had packed in jars. The lady was so impressed that she bought a jar, and later returned to buy the rest of the case that the grocer as a courtesy had allowed Ruth to leave. He still refused to carry "Constant Comment," but the memory of how the customer was affected by the aroma of "Constant Comment" stayed with Ruth Bigelow. A number of the empty jars remained in the basement of the brownstone, and they were now converted into "whiffing jars," one of which replaced a tin of tea in the company's popular "Get Acquainted" case of "Constant Comment." New England gift shops found the whiffing jars perfect for their layouts, and patrons could not resist opening the jars to sample the aroma of "Constant Comment." More and more of these people began to buy the tea and became devoted to it.

Around 1949 sales of "Constant Comment" finally began to take off. By 1950 the company had a half-dozen sales reps spread across the country, selling the tea into gourmet shops, gift shops, and even hardware stores. At this point "Constant Comment" was not a grocery store item. The company maintained thousands of small accounts, relying on Parcel Post or UPS to deliver the orders. Business was proving so successful that in 1950 the Bigelows sold their New York brownstone for $20,000 and bought a factory in Norwalk, Connecticut, part of which they also rented out to another company. Also in 1950 the company became involved with a sales rep named Charles K. Long, who would have a major impact on the fortunes of the Bigelows and their tea business. He was a West Coast salesman who only took on "Constant Comment" because his wife insisted on it. Once he began to sell the product, however, he opened a prodigious number of accounts in California, Arizona, Oregon, and Washington. He would eventually become the company's West Coast sales manager and stay with Bigelow for 30 years.

Although Bigelow was generally regarded to be a one-product company until the mid-1970s, it actually began selling teas other than "Constant Comment" during the 1950s. Getting on the end of Johnson & Johnson runs for flip-top tin boxes used for packaging bandaids, Bigelow began packaging various teas in bags. At first the tea bags were produced offsite, then hand-packed in Norwalk. It was not until 1958, a year after Bigelow moved to a larger plant in Norwalk, that the company bought its first tea bag machine. It was also in the late 1950s that the company began to make the transition from specialty shops to the supermarket. Because grocery stores were receiving requests for "Constant Comment" from their customers, they began asking Bigelow for price lists. To accommodate these customers, the company had to recruit food brokers. By the end of the 1960s Bigelow had more accounts from grocery stores than specialty shops. The company was also without its founding spirit. Ruth Bigelow died in 1966, followed by her husband in 1970. David Bigelow had already assumed leadership of the business in 1963.

Expanding Beyond "Constant Comment" in the Mid-1970s

Aside from the tea bags Bigelow sold in bandaid boxes in the 1950s, it was not until the mid-1970s that the company truly moved beyond "Constant Comment," and then it was a matter of necessity. Around 1973, according to David Bigelow, a competitor came out with a tea using a label that was virtually identical to the one used for "Constant Comment." Bigelow sued and during the course of the trial it became apparent that the competitor was planning to bring out a complete line of teas using labels in the "Constant Comment" vein. Advised by his attorney that the company should bring out its own line of specialty teas, Bigelow initiated a crash program and within a short time produced many of the teas that remain popular today. In addition to ultimately winning protection for its labeling in court, Bigelow now enjoyed the advantages of an expanded product line. Bigelow teas were able to command greater shelf space in supermarkets, and within two years the company doubled its revenues.

With an increase in sales volume, Bigelow began expanding its operations in the 1980s. In 1984 it opened a distribution center in Boise, Idaho, in order to serve its West Coast customers. Tea bag machines were added and the Idaho center soon evolved into Bigelow's largest manufacturing facility, responsible for half of the company's annual production of tea bags. In 1987 Bigelow also opened a small distribution center in Louisville, Kentucky, designed to serve the Southeast and Midwest. In much the way the Boise facility grew, Louisville branched into manufacturing. In addition to making tea bags, it also produced gifts, and became responsible for the bulk of Bigelow's specialty work. In 1990, after spending some 40 years in Norwalk, Bigelow opened a new headquarters building in Fairfield, Connecticut, featuring test kitchens and an advanced computerized tea blending tower.

During the 1980s and 1990s, Bigelow expanded its product lines in a number of directions. It introduced a line of iced-tea flavors. Looking to capitalize on its reputation with specialty teas, it took on Celestial Seasonings and Lipton in the herbal tea segment. Bigelow also gained an edge over its rivals in the green tea market, an advantage that translated into higher profits when in 1997 studies indicated that green tea helped to prevent some cancers. As a result, green tea sales grew at a pace much higher than the rest of the industry and served as a major driver for Bigelow, which launched a variety of green tea blends. In addition, green tea helped to make tea more than just a seasonable product for consumers who only drink iced tea during warm months. In the late 1990s Bigelow moved beyond tea, introducing a line of honey spreads, and then in 2001 it brought out a line of flavored dessert coffees, including such flavors as French Vanilla and Irish Cream.

To bolster its sales, Bigelow established a mail-order business in the 1990s. It also modernized its management structure, but remained very much a family-run business, operating without an outside board. By 2001 the company's annual revenues were estimated to total in the range of $80 million. Bigelow was a well recognized brand name with established distribution channels, making it a prime target for a much larger food or beverage company. But with a third generation of the Bigelow family fully committed to running the business, there was little chance that the makers of "Constant Comment" would change hands in the foreseeable future.

Principal Divisions: Sales; Marketing; Blending; Finance; Operations; Human Resources; Strategic Planning.

Principal Competitors: Celestial Seasonings, Inc.; Thomas J. Lipton Company.

Further Reading:

  • Garfinkel, Perry, "Honoring Thy Father, the Boss," New York Times, June 18, 1994, p. A39.
  • Haar, Dan, "Industry Fits Them to a Tea," Hartford Courtant, December 11, 1997, p. D1.
  • Lavoie, Denis, "Bigelow Vice President Has Tea in Her Blood," Associated Press, September 20, 1998.
  • Wittemann, Betsy, "Infused in the Industry," New York Times, February 11, 2001, p. CT1.

Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol. 49. St. James Press, 2003.