Located at 115 S. Walnut Street in Downtown Champaign, Walnut Street Tea has been in business for over 30 years, offering over 500 specialty teas, 40 whole-bean coffees, tea brewing equipment, and more! CCP spoke with owner Hilary Porter.
We understand you have a childhood connection to Walnut Street Tea. Can you tell us the story?
Yeah! I used to take music lessons when The Conservatory of Central Illinois was located right next to the shop, so I’ve been coming in and out of here since I was about five-years-old. My mom had a couple of teas that were her favorites so I would come in to buy her gifts on birthdays and holidays. I’ve always wanted to run my own business and I’d always loved this place and the previous owner (Betty) was willing to entrust it to me when I bought it from her, so it’s been fun and a childhood dream of sorts.
When did you take over the business and how has it changed since then? How do you keep up Betty’s legacy?
I took over in February of 2016, so we’re coming up on our fourth Christmas season here. Customers have always loved the homey feel of the shop but the space was a bit cramped, so one change we made was moving items around which has really helped open up the space. I also expanded our loose leaf tea collection – we probably had about 80 varieties before and we’re at over 100 now. We’ve tried to keep the original charm of the Walnut Street Tea Company, while updating things as necessary.
The front façade of your building was changed by the recent addition of the stoplight. Can you tell us more about that?
The stoplights put in by the City of Champaign have been amazing! We’ve had people who have lived in this community for years, but never stopped in before until the light was installed. They see us and they’re like, “I saw you at the stoplight! I didn’t know you were here, and I had to stop in!” Our space was also improved last summer through the addition of the outdoor patio space and our front entrance has a brand new railing and ramp. That has been great because we have a lot of older customers with limited mobility and the new entrance has given them an opportunity to come back into the store.
We read you have a business degree from UIUC. How has your education proved particularly helpful in running the business?
Well, a business degree is always great when you want to run your own business! U of I has a great business school. They gave me the building blocks that I needed in order to make smart decisions, and at the same time exposed me to a lot of different ways of running a business. I’ve definitely been able to apply a lot of those principles, but business changes so fast, so I feel like I’m constantly learning! People also want the option to shop online, and for a small business, that can be challenging. We want to still be present on what’s currently going on, but at the same time we do want to keep our old world charm and some of that comes with calling into the shop and asking for something specifically or if we can special order something for you, so that’s always nice. I can’t ship the smell! We have so many people walk in here and they just stop and they just inhale and say “Oh my gosh, this smells amazing!” No photo can do that justice!
How long have you lived in Champaign? How do you feel about the development on the horizon in downtown Champaign since you’ve lived here and how do you expect it to affect your business?
I am from here, born and raised. My husband and I are high school sweethearts (and townies!) and I actually bought this place and he started his own software business in the same year. My dad used to work at Christie Clinic downtown and would make comments when we were kids about how there wasn’t a whole lot going on downtown for a while, but that has definitely changed with lots more shops and restaurants. I think that’s only going to get better with new development downtown that will help local businesses like Walnut St. Tea.
We hear you’re running a Shop Local Holiday Market on November 30. What can customers expect to find there?
This is our fourth year doing this and the first year that we are partnering with Champaign Center Partnership. The market is going to be on the same weekend as Parade of Lights and Small Business Saturday, so we’re really going to blow this up! The market will feature baked goods, local honey, jewelry, crafts, and more. It will be a great place to get holiday shopping done while supporting local businesses at the same time. We’ll have live-print screen printing of gift tags and crafts in the morning, and live music on the stage in the afternoon. It should be a party!
By Melinda Sevilla, Contributing Writer