Family Business: George Watts & Son

Sam Watts, great-great-grandson of founder George Watts, steers this Downtown china shop and tea room into the 21st century.


Year Founded: 1870
Location: Downtown
Family members on staff: One
Gift store or lunch spot? Both! A luxury tabletop and gift emporium is on the first floor. The Watts Tea Shop, serving a full menu, is upstairs.
How it all started: The first George Watts took a job at Massey and Co., merchants of china and sundries, and later bought it. Watts’ son lured the popular Cook Tea Shop to the space above the store in the early 1930s, later buying it out.

Was it always your plan to take over the family business?

When my grandfather (George Watts, the founder’s grandson) passed away 11 years ago, I was living in Philadelphia managing a lumber yard. My mom said I should go be with my grandmother. I figured it would be a good opportunity. There was no real intention for me to work my way through the company. That’s just the way it turned out.”

What jobs have you held there?

I started as a waiter, then tea shop manager. I went into the store to work in shipping and receiving. I was sales manager, then I worked in the back office before I got the opportunity to be CEO.

What’s your average day?

Let’s say I’ve got a waitress whose daughter is sick. If I need to wait tables, I will. If I need to work in the kitchen, I will. My average day could be as a sub being inserted into the area of weakness for the day. That way I can offer flexibility to my employees and have a good sense of the pulse of the business.

What sets Watts apart from the competition?

We carry the very best items in the world. There are very few stores like ours with the prestige and the brands we carry.

What do you expect of your employees?

There is something to be said about fine dining and robotic service but I’d much rather have my employees greet someone in a manner in which they are comfortable but still in a professional style. There’s no set slogan when you walk in or in the way we answer the phone. I want my employees to look you in the eye and have a conversation with you.

What has been the most dramatic change you’ve made to the business?

The business was kind of being strangled because it had a ton of inventory and a ton of space. It was a product of the old way of shopping. People would peek in the window and come in and you’d have to have everything in stock. We wanted to be more agile. Now, about half of our sales, if not more, come via the Internet or are at least generated by people shopping online and then coming in.

What have you done with the extra space?

We have this tremendous asset in the building. I wanted to capitalize on that but I wanted to make sure that we weren’t just putting in random tenants. We wanted to create a synergy between the businesses. We started with an art gallery (DeLind Gallery of Fine Art, which closed in 2015). Then we added the bridal salon (Zita). Then Kesslers Diamonds.

Any unusual customer requests?

The signature dish at the Tea Shop is our sunshine cake. A very good customer of ours had a client who wanted us to do our sunshine cake as a cupcake. That’s like being asked to make prime rib out of filet mignon. The cake is very temperamental but our chef found a way to do it.

How do the store and tea shop complement each other?

The store is the revenue driver but one of the advantages we have over other retail stores is that we have a restaurant. When it’s February and no one wants to just go shopping, maybe they want to go and have hot tea.

What about food?

I wanted to renew the focus on the food at the tea shop. We had gotten a little stale. We want to offer a menu that’s dynamic, chef-inspired and relevant. We have to make sure we are appealing to customers who have been coming here for 50 years while also making sure it is fun and interesting for new customers.

Why isn’t the tea shop open on Sunday?

My grandfather always felt that Sunday should be set aside for family. We’ve had many a debate about whether to open for Sunday brunch but the family has never felt that it was the right course of action.

Why not operate the store as an online only business?

We want people to still come out and shop. We could just be an online company and we’d be just fine. But there’s still a need to touch and feel a product, especially when you are buying a piece of Steuben Crystal and spending $1,300.

What are your strengths as a leader?

I’m all about interacting with my employees and my customers. I look at myself as an ambassador of the family, of the business, of the legacy.

You are the only Watts family member on the payroll. Anyone relatives offer advice?

When you have a family business that has been around for nearly 150 years, there’s no shortage of free advice. Other family members took different paths in their lives. My dad (J.D. Watts) is a (Milwaukee County) Circuit Court judge, my aunt is a professor, another aunt is a lawyer, another is a retired educator and my uncle works for the government. Still, the reputation and how the company is run is important to them.



Rich Rovito is a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine.