It is said that if people do what they love, they’ll never work a day in their life. For Bill Waddington, this axiom couldn’t be more true. As owner of TeaSource, he scours the world for exotic teas, which is certainly no easy task, but it’s a challenge he accepts with open arms. His love for the product practically radiates from him when asked about his favorite subject—tea. Waddington, who owns TeaSource in Eden Prairie, St. Paul and St. Anthony, is a world-traveler with a keen palate. Like any enthusiast, he’s eager to share his discoveries with anyone willing to have a sip.
“We don’t have a really good business model,” Waddington admits, saying that it would be more practical for him to source his teas from one or two suppliers. Instead, Waddington’s non-traditional, hands-on approach has helped shape his business into one of the more unique ventures in the Twin Cities, sourcing his goods from over 60 different suppliers worldwide. The extent to which Waddington has cast his net doesn’t just affect the scope of his product, but the emotional connection he has to his tea, as well.
“My job is to go around the world and find the best teas to bring back to the Twin Cities,” Waddington explains. Although, while on his journey, Waddington’s discoveries have included more than just tea, as he’s made more than enough friendships and lifelong bonds along the way.
After taking in the lime green walls and the impressive amount of teas waiting behind the counter, it is impossible to miss the larger than life photos on the wall at TeaSource’s Eden Prairie location. Each one looks like it’s been taken in a different corner of the world, with its subjects all sporting broad smiles to create snapshots that feel like they’d be just as at home in a family scrapbook.
Waddington points to the photos on the wall, able to identify nearly everyone in photos, even some by name. “We buy right from the people who grow and make the tea itself,” he explains. It’s clear that for Waddington, TeaSource isn’t just a place for sharing his travels, but also a community fostered by the beverage he holds so dear.
The passion for all things tea began for Waddington when he was a freshman in college at the University of Illinois. Like many of his college peers, Waddington needed a caffeine fix to stay awake during late-night study sessions. However, his first instinct wasn’t to reach for a pot of java. “I hate coffee,” he says. “It tastes and smells terrible to me.” What began as a late-night necessity led to Waddington scouring his local grocery store for the easiest, cheapest option both for his schedule and his budget. Although, after supermarket teas grew stale, Waddington didn’t lose hope on his quest for the perfect cup of tea.
“There’s prize-winning olive oil, gold medal champagne… I figured that somewhere in the world, there has to be great tea,” Waddington says. Not one to give up easily, he chose to extend his search beyond his own backyard. Predating the era of email and social media, Waddington took a more fundamental approach to his search—he put pen to paper and wrote to tea growers across the globe. Through a confluence of his background in research (Waddington was once a librarian at Northwestern University in Illinois) and pure tenacity, he was able to put himself in touch with tea growers in countries in India and China, asking if he could buy a pound or two of tea for his personal collection.
Waddington was met with nothing but positive responses from his new pen pals. “I think there was shock that there was this young kid from America asking them to buy a pound of tea,” he recalls. Along with written responses, Waddington received samples of tea and was networked with even more tea professionals across the world.
After years of exchanging thoughts and teas with growers around the world, Waddington had grown into a tea connoisseur unlike any other. He compares tea’s complexities to those of wine’s. Although unlike wine, tea is sourced from only one plant: Camellia sinensis.
After working as a corporate trainer for Supervalu, Waddington got a spark of inspiration to open his own tea store. While beginning in a spare bedroom, TeaSource has since expanded in its 20 years of operation to feature over 200 teas in three locations. Waddington’s desire for excellence burns as bright as it did when he first opened TeaSource’s doors.
That passion and tea knowledge has been passed on to TeaSource employees, who are able to guide customers toward the right tea choice. Waddington can even figure out what kind of tea customers might drink based off of their favorite apple or preferred type of bread. “I have friends [in business] who cringe when I say this, but my goal has never been to be the biggest tea company in the world. My goal is to say, with honesty and pride, that I can match my teas up against anyone in the world, and I love helping people learn about them.”
Of course, while Waddington’s passion is tea, it’s obvious that his love for the community it’s been able to create is why he sticks around. “The tea industry is very civil, [kind] and [courteous], and that still holds true today,” he says. “Tea people have a bond that crosses cultural backgrounds.”
Such is evidenced in Waddington’s business relationship with Michao, a tea grower from Fuji, Japan, who Waddington maintains correspondence with via messenger apps and email. Recently, when Waddington emailed her to ask about what kind of crops she was planning on growing this season, she told him that her tea growing would be put on the back burner temporarily—she was pregnant with twin boys. “[The friendship] was brought together by tea,” he says. Waddington still received tea from Michao and her husband, and he now features them in-store as a special collection with her namesake. “She almost has a little fan club in the Twin Cities,” he says.
Moving forward, Waddington hopes to create more of an online presence for TeaSource while maintaining the unique experience of providing customers a chance to visit one of his tea shops to see, smell and sample some of the best teas from around the globe, with the added benefit of receiving personalized advice from experienced tea experts. “We’re looking for ways to increase the tea experience,” Waddington says. “For everyone.”