In Tribute to Steven Smith

There are people who can see possibilities and potential in the places many of us miss. Their vision opens our eyes, and in this case, awakens our palates, to something that we now can’t imagine doing without. Steven Smith, a tea entrepreneur and visionary who was once described as “Merlin meets Marco Polo” by Tazo brand strategist Steve Sandstrom, has been one of these people.

Photo by Tiffany Talbott/Smithtea.com

Photo by Tiffany Talbott/Smithtea.com

On March 23, Smith died at age 65 at his home in Lake Oswego, Ore., due to complications from liver cancer.

“Steve Smith was some kind of genius when it came to tea and also to business,” says tea educator and writer James Norwood Pratt who has known Smith since 1980. “He was one of the most gifted creators of tea blends and tea businesses in our or any other time. He is among those principally responsible for our present tea renaissance. His wry smile and sense of humor never left him and never failed to lift up his friends’ hearts. We felt honored by his friendship and his presence will continue to be a blessing to us.”

Steven Dean Smith was born on May 29, 1949, one of four children. He attended Portland State University, before dropping out and joining the Navy as the Vietnam War continued to rage on. He spent his years of service on the aircraft carrier USS Hancock, which was patrolling waters and engaged in operations in Southeast Asia.

When Smith was discharged from the Navy he saw potential in the early years of the organic food movement, taking a job as a manager of a natural food store. When the store was closing, a regular customer named Stephen Lee purchased large amounts of the store’s remaining inventory of herbs and spices and launched a small tea and herb company, Stash Tea. While Lee had the idea, he needed help selling the product. Smith abandoned his business concept of producing ginger beer and found instant success with Stash, selling $15,000 in product in just three weeks. He joined Stash as a co-founder and the pair were on their way to creating one of the best known American tea companies in history.

“I felt that by increasing the quality of the product inside, that we could fundamentally change the way people felt about tea,” Smith said, according to a 2012 interview on the Portland Food and Drink website.

Smith and Lee hit upon the idea of sourcing and distributing Oregon-grown peppermint through Stash. They redeveloped a wheat threshing machine, got trained to drive tractor trailer trucks and eventually sold hundreds of tons of mint to Lipton and Celestial Seasonings. This endeavor brought in the funds needed to help Stash grow on a massive scale, eventually reaching annual revenues of $10 million. In 1994, Japanese tea vendor Yamamotoyama purchased the company.

This was just the first stage of the Smith-Lee partnership in tea. The two joined forces to launch Tazo Tea, a tea juggernaut that sold to Starbucks in 1999 for $9 million. After the sale, Smith joined the Starbucks team, continuing to offer vision and guidance around the potential of tea, according to the Los Angeles Times. (Lee went on to found Kombucha Wonder Drink.)

In 2006, Smith retired to the south of France, before returning to Oregon with his wife Kim DeMent to open Steven Smith Teamaker three years later. This beloved business, sited in an old blacksmith shop in Portland, sells small-batch artisanal tea. At first Smith resisted the use of his name, but his marketing team convinced him. They proposed Steven Smith Teamaster, but he preferred the more humble “teamaker” moniker.

Smith was well-respected in the tea community for his contributions to advance the role of tea in America, as well as for his kindness and generosity. For many years he has worked with Mercy Corps to help in India’s tea growing areas, improving the conditions for tea workers. Earlier this year he was inducted to the Specialty Food Association’s Hall of Fame.

Screen Shot 2015-03-29 at 2.49.13 PM“I met Steve Smith in the 90s,” remembers Tea Magazine founding editor Pearl Dexter. “While on a visit to the Northwest he invited me…to tour Tazo headquarters. The place was impeccable and everyone’s manners the same…Steve had an amazing smile and his popularity never interfered with recognizing the hard work of those in the tea industry less popular than he.” Many other tea enthusiasts tell stories of small moments with Smith where he took the time to welcome them and to share his excitement and tea knowledge.

Rajah Banerjee, owner of India’s Makaibari Tea Estate, worked closely with Smith on the Mercy Corps Community Health and Advancement Initiative (CHAI). “Steven was the most caring and sensitive entity that the tea world has been privileged to have in her fold. I have known him for three decades and what was most remarkable was his intensity to initiate projects for the upliftment of the marginalised in the tea growing regions he was associated with. It was an exciting time to conceptualise, organise, and execute the very successful CHAI initiative at Darjeeling, which has benefited so many families in the region.”

Smith leaves his wife, DeMent, a son Jack, a daughter Carrie Smith-Prei, three sisters and two grandchildren. He was previously married to Teri Schwarz. The family has asked that donations in his memory be made to Mercy Corps’ School Education Retention Program which aims to help children in Assam finish high school and go to college.

Steven Smith Teamaker will continue under the leadership of DeMent, along with Tony Tellin who has been Smith’s “right hand man” for 17 years. Tellin is currently the company’s master tea blender. The company has 30 employees and will soon open a 25,000 square foot warehouse, blending lab, cafe and tasting room.

There is no doubt that tea enthusiasts for years to come will remember this generous and visionary man each time they lift their cups.

Sources: Los Angeles Times, The Gourmet Retailer, The Washington Post, The New York Times, Bloomberg, and Oregon Live