Over the years I have had the pleasure of speaking with a few tea dignitaries – Mo Siegel, who created Celestial Seasonings – which are really herbal tisanes, but we won’t hold that against him – and turned this country onto tea; Ron Rubin, who elevated the Republic of Tea to an international phenomenon; and our own Norwood Pratt, whom I affectionately call the “Father of Tea in America”. All are down-to-earth men with vision who weren’t afraid to take chances, some of which worked out and some of which didn’t.
It was particularly delightful for me to meet with Steve Smith at his new venture, which is actually within walking distance of my week-end place in the Pearl district of Portland, Oregon. I had been trying to meet with Steve since his days at Tazo, but never got beyond a few phone calls. Interestingly, he actually remembered me from those calls three years ago, as did his former executive assistant, Amy, who now mans the tea bar and provides a warm introduction to the tea. You might say Smith Tea is a family affair to which Steve Smith has attracted a handful of his favorites from Tazo as well as his stunning wife, Kim, whose job it is to do whatever needs doing. That seems to be a theme for everyone in this small, tight-knit band, who excel at multitasking. Steve has been known to actually make deliveries en route to meetings and tastings.
Upon entering what appears to be a small, old, brick building, one is immediately impressed with the ambiance. It is clear that Steve’s attention to detail goes beyond tea and packaging. Everywhere the eye gazes, there’s something to delight you. It has a bit of a sparse Asian feel, yet he’s managed to craft something unique that’s warm and inviting. I walked up to the tea counter and announced my appointment with Steve and was served a cup of tea while I waited for him to finish up his meeting with Whole Foods. Before long, a man dressed in black approached me with his hand extended and a warm smile. Hello Steve Smith.
Of course, I couldn’t help but start our interview by asking the obvious question – “What drew you to tea?” The story goes that Steve’s working mom arranged for him to spend his after-school time with his grandmother each day and she served him tea – with milk and sugar of course – but tea nonetheless. As he reached his early twenties, he didn’t evolve to become a coffee drinker, so tea remained his hot beverage of choice. He did manage a health food store, where he began his introduction to spices and tea. The rest is history when he developed Stash Tea in his home town of Portland, Oregon.
Given the current economic situation the country and the world face, I was interested to know why he chose to open a tea room. His answer surprised me a bit. “It’s not a tea room. If it was, I’d be serving food along with tea. It’s really a manufacturing operation.” The man had a point, as no food was in sight. What he did offer was a limited selection of tea by the cup or by the pot and a unique approach that he calls “Tea Flights”, much like wine and micro beer offerings here in Portland. If you’d like to try a series of green and white teas, he’s got a “flight” with four teas to sample. Same goes for blacks. Again, as with micro breweries, you have a bird’s eye view, behind a floor-to-ceiling glass wall, of the behind-the-scenes blending, bagging, and boxing of the tea.
One of the ways that Steve has differentiated himself from his competition is by producing “small-batch teas” – which he defines as only 10 pounds of tea at a time – to reduce the breakage of the delicate leaves and flowers. The day I visited, for example, he blended 30 pounds of teas in three separate batches. When I asked how he planned to maintain quality and freshness as he grew, he simply replied, “I have no grand plans of national distribution.” Given his meeting with Whole Foods, I found that a bit inconsistent. He reports that he might choose to distribute to Portland Whole Foods, but certainly not the national chain, keeping his tea local to Portland. He sees Smith Tea as almost a made-to-order tea. In fact, one can actually make an appointment for a private blending session.
Stay tuned for further installments of my interview with Steve, during which he shares his pick for his all-time favorite tea as well as his current favorite. I also asked him his opinion of Starbucks’ new venture, which we’ve been kicking around here at T Ching. You’ll find, as I did, he’s the real deal – a wildly creative entrepreneur, who has managed to change this country’s attitude and consumption of tea. At 60 years old, he’s still going strong. My money’s on him. I suspect Smith Tea will be another winner.