Innovative Iconic STASH Tea Brand Aging Well

PORTLAND, Ore.

Stash Tea got its start with a handful of people selling loose-leaf tea out of a Victorian house in Portland, Ore., in 1972.

Nearly 40 years later, the well-regarded tea company occupies a quiet slot in an industrial park in suburban Portland, where 100 employees busily manufacture tea for extensive North American distribution and welcome customers to a bustling retail teashop storefront.

As it looks toward its 40th birthday next year, Stash is doing what many individuals do when facing mid-life, reviewing the past, planning for the future and celebrating. Impressive milestones mark the past four decades. In the early 70s, before there was a specialty tea industry, Stash invented the blending and selling of premium teas, according to Dorothy Arnold, vice president of marketing. Collaborating with Oregon mint farmers in that same decade, they opened the market for peppermint’s use in tea. Online pioneers as well, Stash launched one of the first specialty tea websites in 1995. Expansion into numerous trade channels – grocery and specialty retail, foodservice, mass merchandise, international, ecommerce, print catalog and a retail store has helped grow the business into the multi-million dollar company that is one of Oregon’s 150 largest privately held companies.

Victories abound, yet there are still goals to achieve. Despite their long-standing presence in the Pacific Northwest, Stash Tea battles the misconception that they are not local. A combination of factors including a suburban location, a wide and deep distribution network and the lack of a branded sit-down teahouse means fewer opportunities for the stalwart tea producer to brand its local identity.

Retail store manager Devin Kelly has taken on the mission of “playing up Stash Tea’s local roots in the Pacific Northwest.”

The opportunity to meet locals happens at the retail shop — an expanse of 1,800 square feet that opened in 2005. Here, Stash lines its walls with 250+ loose-leaf teas in vacuum-sealed, leaf-motif bags and a 100+ selection of bagged teas in their familiar richly colored boxes. Ample space means extensive lines of tea ware from traditional to modern, accessories – reusable silicone tea bags, dozens of tea bag caddies, cozies, trays, infusers – and sweet treats to go with bagged and loose-leaf teas. A circular island smack in the middle of the shop gives service managers a 360° view of the shop. The retail inventory is shared with the online store expanding the number of choices for both income streams.

Stash TeaTraditional teas dominate sales with English Breakfast and Earl Grey at the top of the list. Seasonal teas with açaí and superfruits fly off the shelves in summer along with iced tea brew bags, a powdered iced tea line and senchas. Regardless of the season, Chai remains a best seller in both loose-leaf and blends. The retail shop’s average ticket hovers around $22-$26.

A recent addition to the retail shop inventory is by-the-ounce blending. Exotic flavors include Black Forest Cake, Orange Cream, Cotton Candy Chamomile, and S’mores replete with chocolate chunks and marshmallow bits. Four flavors are unveiled at a time – with another round on deck enticing customers with mouth-watering names: Raspberry Truffle, Tropical Lemonade, Peach Cobbler and White Bouquet.

Not just a favorite of locals who have discovered the shop, it’s also a tourist destination. Being selected Washington County’s Visitors Association Specialty Retailer of the Year two years in row certainly hasn’t hurt foot traffic.

Kelly identifies her typical customer as a suburban, older woman. However, that demographic is broadening to include the younger set attracted to the extensive selection. Health is also a draw, and Kelly sees more men coming in looking for a healthy drink. “They want something in between a Red Bull and a beer,” she says.

Stash TeaTreasure Hunt

Our location is a double-edged sword, says Kelly. “It’s a treat for retail customers, when they find us in an industrial park. It’s like uncovering a hidden gem.” Kelly points to the perks behind shopping at the source. It’s a well-rounded sensory experience for customers who can see the whole operation and watch the tea being produced and packaged up for delivery. “Rich aromatics of tea and essential oils waft throughout the shop and warehouse reminding customers that this is where the magic happens,” she adds.

Extra effort in the viral marketing arena has rewarded the Stash retail shop with customer dividends. Kelly has experimented with ‘Living Social,’ a group coupon mailing that reached 200,000 and brought new shoppers to the store. “Word of mouth helps as well,” Kelly says. The teashop provides Kelly what she refers to as the ‘human element’ where she gets a chance to work with people’s preconceived notions and reaffirm information on tea in general. Classes are another gateway to debunk myths regarding tea – ‘green tea is bitter’, tea will help me lose weight,’ ‘tea has a lot or no caffeine’ – or simply opportunities to teach the basics such as how to brew tea.

In-store tea tastings help Stash accommodate groups rather than offer oft asked-for tours. Groups request a tea line-up or Kelly develops a tasting customized to their interests. Discounts on product are an added incentive for group visits.

Stash teaOvercoming Misconceptions

Kelly is a recent addition to the Stash family, a 100-strong group of employees who pride themselves on longevity, most marking their tenure in decades rather than years. Kelly has taken it upon herself to get Stash out into the hands of Portlanders and has embarked on a community event push that is bringing tea to the masses. “Putting a teabag or a cup of tea into the hands of potential customers,” is her mantra and guiding marketing principle.

Local is important to their Pacific Northwest clientele, but beyond the borders of Oregon, Kelly and associate marketing manager Megan Rolerkite want customers to know that Stash is a premium specialty line — not just a standard tea bag company. Stash Tea in two words? “Quality and extensive,” says Kelly. Rolerkite rattles off the sources of high-quality Stash ingredients such as hibiscus from Egypt, peppermint from the Northwest, bergamot oil from Italy, etc. Only the best of the best is blended with teas that are equally well-researched. Stash president, Tom Lisicki still travels the world to bring back tea he has discovered or to meet with growers he has done business with for several decades.

A 40-year heritage of premium tea and a solid business model is something to celebrate. Although plans are being kept under wraps, a symbolic celebration may include the opening of a sit-down teahouse within the Portland city limits, opening the doors to the urban population. “The time is right to open a teahouse,” Kelly says. “Not only would it mark a celebratory year, but it coincides with the market that has been exploding in the past few years. And, it would allow us to further establish Stash as a local brand by increasing access to our product.”