Paul Greenberg posted an article recently in the New York Times title “Why Are We Importing Our Own Fish?” The article is a global look at how native species of seafood are being exported while the United States is importing most of its seafood. One of the points of this article discusses the export of Wild Alaskan Salmon to Asia. Because labor in a number of Asian countries is so cheap, we see this Salmon being harvested in the states, fabricated in Asian countries and then sold back to U.S. wholesale companies. In Florida there are a number of Asian vegetable growers who produce a wide variety of products. Those products are harvested and shipped to major hubs like New York and Boston. Those produce items are then sold back to Florida wholesalers and retailers. In some cases these products end up being sent back to the same city they were harvested from. Read more of this >>
The Summit is an amazing event sponsored through a partnership between Food Arts magazine and The Culinary Institute of America-Greystone. The Summit brings together chefs, hospitality leaders and other related experts from across all segments of the industry. It is designed as a fast paced series of demonstrations, discussions, tastings, and collaborative team exercises that provoke and spark dialogue on innovative approaches and in some cases solutions to many of the challenges we face as an industry. This year’s conference was so relevant and thought provoking that I couldn’t help but to leave questioning my current business model and operating standards.
The core of the Summit and some of my takeaways were that as an industry we are constantly shifting our operating standards to meet ever-changing guest expectations and preferences. We shift priorities to keep pace with the rising cost of goods, heated sustainability issues, labor costs and benefits, and countless other challenges. We have become to some degree an industry with a one-size-fits-all mentality; we are so determined to meet every expectation of every guest at every price point that we have often lost our identity as a brand. Read more of this >>
Through a company I’m involved with, we submitted a proposal for a significant statewide bid. This 25 page submission included hours of legwork. To ensure the proposal would arrive in the state capital on time for the bid openings we sent the package priority overnight with a guaranteed delivery time. The United States Postal Service got the time right but missed the guaranteed day by 24 hours. The result of which will be, at minimum, thousands of dollars in lost sales. For that mistake the U.S.P.S. offered us our postage back and a meager apology.
I’m sure we’ve all had similar experiences. From the view of a procurement agent examples such as these really make you wonder what happened to Customer Service.
Remember a time when you could speak to a human being? How about being able to work with someone that truly knew what they were talking about? Have you visited a hardware store lately? Today’s business is about automating, streamlining, downsizing and doing more with less. What service is someone providing when it takes the customer 15 minutes to speak to a living, breathing human being? Somewhere along the way the idea of truly servicing the customer seemed to fall through the cracks. Where resolving product concerns/questions would once take a few minutes, the amount of time doubles when you have to work with automated systems, minimally-skilled employees and/or off-shore phone support.
Some organizations still realize what sets them apart from others is true customer service. This doesn’t mean having a cute slogan or colorful banner promoting customer service. This is about getting back to the basics. I would gladly spend a few dollars more to work with organizations that support their products, understand their products, put themselves in the shoes of the customers they support and just take the time to care for the success of their customers. In the long run you will actually see that there is a return on investment to your organization for supporting organizations such as these.
The idea of customer service is how I approach my job as a procurement agent. I have worked alongside of buyers who have cut corners, had questionable ethics or have been yellers and screamers with the organizations they purchased from. In some cases they would achieve short term success. My point of view is the idea of customer service. I understand that success of my organization depends on long term relationships with our suppliers. Positive relationships ensure long term success for all parties in the supply chain.
In the example above maybe the U.S.P.S. could have just offered to contact the state to advise the bid department that they made the mistake. It wouldn’t have required much effort on their part and it would have produced goodwill with our company.
Until Next Time…..
I’ve been working in hotels since the 1980’s so I have seen a number of changes. Prior to that and, into the last few years, In-Room Dining has served a great need. For a price you could dine in the confines of your own room (a real perk for the single business traveler or the family who just wants to unwind for the night). As times have changed, so have the needs of the hotel guests our operations serve.
Do you remember a time when every hotel had a fine dining restaurant? That fine dining restaurant was like our appendix at one time; it did have a purpose. However, as we moved into the more price conscious, instant gratification society we see today, our hotel guest no longer desired the 3 hour gourmet meal experience. Eventually those culinary anchors started to disappear. They were replaced with more casual and approachable dining options. Read more of this >>
One of the great things about this time of year, besides sleigh bells, presents and gluttony are the multitude of people that come out of the woodworks to make predications on what trends we should expect for the coming year. It is always fun to look at these predictions once we get established in the new year. Here are a couple I’ve seen so far. Read more of this >>
During one of our recent Localecopia Meet & Greets (www.localecopia.org ) I struck up a great conversation with one of our members. After tasting some of their products it really hit me how much more is out there than “grape jelly.” Michael Castania is co-owner, along with his wife Pascale, of Pascale’s, LLC – The Delray Beach Jam Company (http://www.mangohouse.net/home.html ), a company who specializes in unique small batch, hand-crafted jams, jellies and sauces. Sometimes I hesitate posting blogs like this because they may tend to come off as product promotions. This is not the case. In my capacity I truly like to understand the people and products they produce. Read more of this >>
While it does have its place, I am not a fan of Facebook. Personally, I think Facebook has more negative attributes than positive ones. However, I do see the value of professional networking websites such as LinkedIn and others. They provide a solid means of networking with your peers.
On a consistent basis I will seek out new connections. Along the way I will encounter some interesting finds. Never before did I realize just how many people listed at least part of their occupation as a consultant or expert. Sometimes when you look at their body of work it just leaves you scratching your head. You come across people with a year or two of actual work experience under their belt being paid to guide others. Pretty scary proposition if you ask me. This holds true in the area of procurement. Read more of this >>
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.