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Interview With A Former Tour Guide At The Celestial Seasonings Factory
Yesterday’s Sleepytime Bear Expanded Universe post led to one of the most quietly exciting revelations I’ve ever heard: I am connected through Twitter to a former Celestial Seasonings tour guide, who graciously agreed to answer a few jumbled and feverish questions of mine about corporate coziness. I forgot to ask his name in my excitement, so for convenience’ sake I will refer to him below as Sleepytime.
DANNY: Thank you so much for agreeing to talk! Do you mind if I ask you a few questions? This is so exciting, I feel like you must have met the Sleepytime bear yourself, even though I know there is not a real bear.
SLEEPYTIME: There is a terrifying stuffed bear sitting in (guarding?) the entrance!
I love discussing Celestial Seasonings, so the pleasure is mine!
DANNY: Was this a full-time job of yours, or was it volunteer work? How did you start giving tours there?
SLEEPYTIME: It was a summer job between my sophomore and junior years of college. CS bags all of its tea in Boulder, CO, where I grew up, and (at the time, a few years ago, but I think possibly still), their only form of advertising was the tours, which are free. They paid 1$1/hr, CO minimum wage at the time, which imo is not enough for a position that does all the work of advertising! They did give me lots of free tea though, which was cool.
DANNY: I didn't realize they didn't used to advertise! I remember the piece Megan Giller wrote last year about one of the original founders, Mo Siegel, and his connection to The Urantia Book and associated foundation – have you come across that? And do you remember if anyone at the company ever mentioned anything about either the book or the foundation?
SLEEPYTIME: I have extremely come across it and I was the person who would ask awkward questions about it at work! Most people had never heard of Urantia, and weren’t particularly keen to continue the conversation (Mo Siegel's picture is on the wall, the tour script is pretty in thrall to his vision, etc).
I never had anyone on a tour ask me about Urantia or Siegel, which I though was peculiar, if unsurprising (also, I should add that while I was told they didn't advertise, I'm not positive that's true).
DANNY: Oh, interesting! That makes sense you didn’t get any questions about it – I can imagine most people on a tour of an herbal tea factory just want to see drifts of peppermint and overstuffed armchairs. So the tour script mentioned him and his vision but nothing about his association with the Urantia Foundation? Do you remember how you came to hear about it while you were working there? Did someone mention it or did you find it independently?
SLEEPYTIME: Yeah, so the script mentioned Siegal as a long-haired hippie who went picking herbs and flowers in the Rockies and won the people of Boulder over with his magical concoctions (I exaggerate the tone a little, but that was the image), and that was it. No mention of Urantia.
DANNY: I’m reasonably sure I was able to find Mo Siegel’s LinkedIn profile, and it looks like he was last CEO of Celestial Seasonings in 2002 and may possibly still be on the board – he does still list the Urantia Foundation on the profile, for whatever that's worth.
SLEEPYTIME: I first heard about the Urantia connection my parents, who have lived in Boulder for decades and are pretty astute when it comes to seeing through New Age stuff (they met as cashiers at a natural foods store, so they've been adjacent to and disillusioned by the new age/health food scene for a good long while).
DANNY: That's so interesting! 'd love to hear a little bit about their and your relationship to such scenes – what you find useful, what gives you pause.
SLEEPYTIME: I could write a whole essay about this, probably, but I (and they) are very skeptical both of the environmental and labor practices of mainstream agriculture and also the claims of the natural food industry (which as we know can also be terrible on labor). I think the ideas about purity in the health food scene — bodily purity, “chemical-free” food, GMO panic, etc — are incredibly damaging, and I suspect that the obsession with purity is what makes the movement sometimes such a natural bedfellow with white supremacy, queer/transphobia, etc. If there's an ethic to be recovered in the natural food scene, I think it's an ethic of good relations, whether with our fellows at the table or the planet or the people who make our food. And I think I and my parents care about that a lot, but at least in Boulder, don't generally find it in the natural food scene.
DANNY: What was the tour script like? Were you mostly getting local schoolkids on a field trip or a lot of amateur rooibos enthusiasts? Also: did anyone ever try to name the Sleepytime bear? I would call him Charles.
SLEEPYTIME: I generally liked the tour script! It was very loose, and mostly dealt with the origins of the herbs (but not the labor practices lol), the machinery, the art, and quality control. And aside from the school groups, we mostly got older Midwesterners, who I suspect were the parents of University of Colorado students and/or tourists who didn't want to go hiking. Every now and then we would get the odd rooibos enthusiast, which was delightful.
Several people did try to name him, but unfortunately I don't recall any of the names! I quite like Charles, though — it suits him.
DANNY: So it’s not just a family of bears idly picking herbs off of a mountainside and sending them down to Celestial Seasonings in a basket, is what you’re telling me.
SLEEPYTIME: I hate to burst your bubble…but alas.
DANNY: That does make sense as a go-to hiking alternative for worn-out tourists, though.
SLEEPYTIME: Yes, the tourists flock here to hike! Which is grand! But they underestimate the elevation and would like some peppermint tea, thank you very much.
DANNY: Do you still drink Celestials Seasonings tea?
SLEEPYTIME: I do, and I’m quite fond of the peppermint and tension tamer. You?
DANNY: I am not a huge herbal tea guy but I do appreciate that unlike some OTHER herbal tea corporations I could name (Yogi Tea!!!) they do not put licorice in everything.
SLEEPYTIME: Amen to that.
DANNY: Licorice is a scourge in the herbal tea community.
SLEEPYTIME: Truly, it is time we spoke up!
DANNY: If I'm honest, while my affection for the Sleepytime Bear drawing remains undimmed, I'm not a big chamomile fan, so I usually just get regular peppermint loose-leaf from the grocery store near me.
I'm grateful you've dedicated so much time to answering my goofy questions so I will try to wrap up! Do you have any particular memories of specific tours or the factory generally that you think might be of interest to people who like drawings of tired bears and herbal tea?
SLEEPYTIME: Loose-leaf peppermint: eminently reasonable! And, let's see... For all my reservations about the company, I do think everyone going through Boulder should take the tour, if only to stop in the peppermint room. (All the peppermint lives in its own sealed room, it'll clear your sinuses right up). They may also be interested to know that all the tea is taste-tested by an old man named Charley who claims to have a super palate and, when I left, was looking for apprentices.
DANNY: THERE'S A ROOM JUST FOR PEPPERMINT??
SLEEPYTIME: PEPPERMINT AND PEPPERMINT ONLY. Actually, also spearmint.
DANNY: I am LOSING IT over this Charley news. He tastes all the tea! He needs an apprentice! Thank you for holding these trade secrets for the end of our conversation because I am losing my mind.
SLEEPYTIME: It's so utterly bananas.
DANNY: I love Charley. I love him. He must be the coziest man in the world
SLEEPYTIME: Also I just realized this is why I took so to your suggestion to name the bear Charles. It fits!
DANNY: Did you ever meet Charley??
SLEEPYTIME: I never met Charley, I think they must keep him in a very cozy vault
If you have ever met Charley, please let me know if you are available for a follow-up interview.