If the name doesn’t stand out, his history and the brands will. This 40 year industry veteran is the brainchild behind such names as Stash, Tazo and Steven Smith Teamaker. I was able to steal a few minutes of his time for one of my (always interesting) Q & A’s.
(Geoff) Could you provide us the Cliff’s Notes version of your background.
(Steven) I was born a Teamaker. That is why on my tea tag it says “since 1949”. Actually, my introduction to tea, with the exception of drinking tea with my grandmother, started when I managed Portland’s first natural foods store. We had a small herb shop connected called “The Gates of Eden” where we sold all kinds of medicinal herbs. We began distributing natural foods to retailers like ourselves, but in 1971 there were so few, so we could not sustain the business. We took the remaining herbs and started Stash Tea, initially selling to food service accounts. In 1993 Stash was sold and I started Tazo in my kitchen in January of 1994, ultimately selling that brand to Starbucks. I stayed on after the sale and then retired in 2006 and moved to France. We returned in 2008 and thought there was an opportunity to again do something interesting with tea and started Smith Teamaker, operating out of an old blacksmith shop in Portland in late 2009.
(Geoff) How did Steven Smith create a powerhouse tea brand (Tazo) that eventually crossed paths with Starbucks and had a global presence?
(Steven) Well Starbucks had tried tea and not succeeded to their expectations. We were looking for a strategic partner to help grow the brand – one that could provide manufacturing or distribution synergies and Starbucks was one of the several companies we had discussion with which ultimately led to their acquisition of the brand and explosive growth for Tazo. Not to mention significant increases to Starbucks’ bottom line.
(Geoff) Is your knowledge of tea making a product of self teaching or, were you able to learn from others along the way?
(Steven) During the Stash day I also co-founded one of Portland’s first retail coffee, tea and spice shops. I knew botanicals and spices pretty well but needed training in black and green teas and in coffee. I made a trip to Philadelphia and spent a day with Don Shalders, a longtime tea buyer and blender. He showed me the basics of blending and English Breakfast, Irish Breakfast and an Earl Grey. From there on I was on my own, with one of Stash’s first tea blends, Jasmine Spice influenced by the spiced tea formula in Joy of Cooking.
(Geoff) What is your attraction to teas / tea making?
(Steven) I love the variety of flavors, colors and aromas in teas and botanicals. That one can do more “tone on tone” blends or work on ingredients that contrast one another. I like the experimentation, and the more I get to know the subtle nuances of each ingredient the more second nature blending becomes. I like the romantic nature of tea in a world that often lacks romance. I like understanding the traditions of tea, honoring them with traditional formulas– then bending and breaking them with unexpected combinations.
(Geoff) What was the focus/emphasis/mission behind your tea brands – Stash, Tazo and Steven Smith Teamaker?
Stash – In Stash it was to learn how to be an entrepreneur, how to stay afloat, have fun and introduce consumers to what people in other cultures had been drinking for a long time – herbal infusions. It was to get to the early adopters and get them to share their experiences and create evangelists for tea. This was long before Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Tipping Point” but we were using the same principals. Always it was about delivering the best flavor we knew how to deliver at that time.
Tazo – In Stash we got bogged down a bit with many thinking tea was price sensitive. With Tazo I challenged that notion and bought the best ingredient I could find, packaged them with verve and imagination and spoke to consumers in a voice they had never heard before. The notion was to tie tea to many historical events with creative story telling – to make tea more approachable, and more flavorful with a brand that was a bit more opaque.
Steven Smith Teamaker – I had always wanted to do an “open kitchen” style blending and packing operation where consumers could actually see all aspects of blending and packing tea. I also felt that it was time for consumers to taste really fresh tea and be able to know exactly where each ingredient came from and when that ingredient was harvested. To be really able to experience the best teas available in loose and bagged form. I continue to bet that consumers will pay a little more for a cup of tea that is really delivers on flavor and aroma – a tea that is memorable.
(Geoff) During your 40 year career did you ever have any “eureka moments” (i.e. A new set of acquired knowledge, discovering a new process for tea making, maybe an idea for different blends, etc.)?
(Steven) I’ve had a few – one of the earliest was when I discovered that I had a knack for blending. Originally we only sold single herbs at Stash until a customer asked for a blend of teas and I created one on the spot. Another was when I started incorporating fruit concentrates into to tea at Tazo and now at Smith we’re scenting tea in Pinot Noir barrels, adding Douglas Fir needles and bamboo leaves to blends and making ready to drink teas with water infused with fresh regional fruits.
(Geoff) During our interaction I noticed that you have a passion for educating others on the finer points of tea. What are some of the points you try to educate others on?
(Steven) First I think we need to demystify tea to some degree to broaden its appeal – make tea more approachable and not something that you only drink when you’re feeling under the weather. We also, as teamakers, need to constantly trying to improve the quality of our products and be transparent about where ingredients come from and to give consumers some tasting guidelines so they know what to look for in a quality tea. By doing that we’ll bring people closer to the origins of tea and change the perception of tea as a commodity.
(Geoff) What advice would you give to others who are pondering the idea of trying to bring their own food/beverage/widget idea to market?
(Steven) To borrow a phrase from a local shoe company – Just do it. Lots of people think they need to have it all figured out before they get started. I think you need a vision, and a sense of where your product fits in the marketplace and its point of difference, but you don’t need a “carved in stone” business plan, because your plan is always going to change. Use your own money to start to show proof of concept and skin in the game before going out and raising capital. Market locally to gain an understanding of product acceptability and sell through. Make sure you have your pricing right and know all of your costs. Build your infrastructure as you go.
(Geoff) What’s next for Steven Smith?
(Steven) I’m not really sure what opportunity is around the corner and I think that is the beauty of being in a small business that is flexible and creative. I’m building out my team here in Portland to be able to respond to our growth in specialty retail, lodging and foodservice. We’ve got a bunch of talented people on our team and I encourage each to bring creative ideas that will form what will be the next phase of the company. I’m excited to be back in the tea business.