Acclaimed tea author and retailer Mary Lou Heiss will be remembered for her adventures as the Tea Trekker and her expertise in preparing, photographing, and writing about fine food. She passed April 9.
“Mary Lou had a great curiosity and a yearning to experience tea up close and personal,” said fellow author and Elmwood Inn Fine Teas founder Bruce Richardson. “That interest took her around the world to meet tea growers. She was very generous in passing along her firsthand tea knowledge to a new generation of tea enthusiasts. We will miss her generous spirit,” he said. He recalled fondly their first meeting in 2002 at a food writer’s conference at the Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia.
“I always respected and admired her for her work and her writing,” writes London-based tea educator Jane Pettigrew. “The tea community has lost a loved and valuable contributor to our knowledge and understanding of tea, its history, culture and importance in our lives,” she said.
Mary Lou and Robert Heiss operated five shops during a 40-year period. The couple met in San Francisco where they worked for TV Guide. “We got taken with the coffee houses,” Robert Heiss told The Recorder newspaper last March. They liked going to the original Peet’s Coffee outlet in Berkeley when the founder was still a presence, he said. Their first shop, the Coffee Gallery, opened in 1974 just three years after Starbucks. Like the original Starbucks the shop sold both coffee and tea. It was followed by Cooks Shop Here (1995-2008). Over time the couple found themselves drawn to tea. They relaunched as Tea Trekker in 2004 and operated the brick and mortar store until March of 2017. TeaTrekker.com is still on leading online retailer of premium tea. In 2015, Mary Lou was diagnosed with blood cancer, which eventually claimed her life.
“Mary Lou was confident that she was going to beat this cancer,” said Robert Heiss. She continued to sell tea online and correspond with the Tea Trekker community. “She continue her relationship with the tea world through March 3 at which time several complications arose and her health deteriorated,” he said. The company will continue to offer fine teas as she wished, he said.
Tea Trekker sells only camellia sinensis, much of it sourced on journeys that Mary Lou recounted in her books and Tea Trekker blog. “We purchase authentic tea that has a history and that grows in natural, mountain tea gardens — we do not purchase or sell intensively grown, commodity-driven tea from modern, commercial tea ventures,” she said.
The Story of Tea: A Cultural History and Drinking Guide, published in 2007 and co-authored by Mary Lou and Robert, was a finalist in the James Beard book award competition. The New York Times review labeled the couple “professors of tea.” The pocket-sized Tea Enthusiasts Handbook (2010) has been reprinted several times. She also wrote Green Tea (2006) by 10 Speed Press and the recipe book Hot Drinks (for Williams Sonoma).
Heiss first attended World Tea Expo in 2007. “Trade shows come and go, often being a victim of a segment of a market or a trend that failed to find a committed audience,” she wrote in The Leaf. The best shows grow and thrive despite the underpinning of the economy because they are tied to larger platforms of business, industry or market direction, not to individual situations. They also bring change and a new ‘something’ to their yearly events when fresh breath is need. With all this in mind, I think that World Tea Expo does a terrific job doing what it does: hosting the singular tea-only event in the U.S. for an industry that has experienced eye-popping double-digit growth.”
In an obituary published by McNally & Watson Funeral & Cremation Service, Heiss was remembered for her “uncanny ability to differentiate quality from hyped, inferior products and services. She was an astute buyer of merchandise and she excelled in presenting quality goods and their background stories.”
“She could not tolerate pretentious ignorance or the questioning of learned, expert knowledge for sport. Her interests included photography, cooking special foods and meals that were cohesive, culturally accurate, and ingredient-wise in terms of origin and season,” according to the obituary. “Her keen eyes and steady hands encouraged her to focus her travel and food writing which is still accessible at An Educated Palate.”
Mary Lou spoke with knowledge and enthusiasm on a range of culinary topics but when interviewed she would explain that “tea cultivation and manufacture and tea culture is my primary obsession and delight.”
Heiss once told Fresh Cup magazine: “there’s a lot of non-explaining in the tea world that we try to counter all the time. We tend to overexplain on our website, because we feel that so many others are not really explaining, throwing out these ideas and these concepts but without explaining why.”
See is survived by Robert, her husband and business partner for 43 years. Funeral services and burial were private.