It is with the heaviest of hearts that we recognize the unexpected death of specialty tea import pioneer Devan Shah, founder of International Tea Importers (ITI), Chado Tea Rooms and Waterfall Tea Company. He was 53 years old.
Shah was born in Mumbai, India and grew up in Coimbatore (where he returned for a visit just last week). He had five older sisters and his father was headmaster of a school. When he was seven, he began spending summers with his sister and brother-in-law on a tea plantation in Coonoor, Nilgiri. They processed both CTC and orthodox teas on the plantation and he worked in the fields and the factory. He majored in business at the university in Coimbatore and then tea lured him back and he became an assistant tea broker.
He recognized that tea was growing as an industry in the United States and chose to move here, intending to import teas from India to America. In 1990 he sold his first 5,000 kilos of CTC, opening his wholesale business in Los Angeles. International Tea Importers has now become one of the largest importers in North America. The ITI warehouse is 50,000 square feet and sells more than 600 teas. In 2005, he opened his retail store, Chado Tea Room, with his wife Reena. There are now three locations in California and two tea kiosks in India. He also founded Waterfall Tea Company.
Shah has been a World Tea Expo exhibitor since 2002, a sponsor of the Specialty Tea Institute, an adviser to World Tea Academy and he also helped found the Los Angeles Tea Festival in 2011.
It would be impossible to attend World Tea Expo and not be aware of Shah’s presence. His smile was infectious and he was warm and generous with his words and deeds. “Devan will be missed,” says Thomas Shu, owner of JT & Tea and another popular presence at World Tea Expo. “The specialty tea industry couldn’t be the same without a visionary leader and brave pioneer. He is a cornerstone for World Tea Expo and has been a strong supporter to help many regional tea festivals…”
“Devan Shah will always be considered one of the great tea pioneers. He took his passion and turned it into a thriving business,” says FaithAnn Bailes, one of the founders of the original World Tea Expo, Take Me 2 Tea, and the Expo’s current special projects advisor. “The old saying, ‘Do what you love and the money will follow,’ most certainly applies to Devan Shah. To say he will be missed is an understatement but not to worry he will be there in spirit. There is no way Devan would ever miss a World Tea Expo.”
As news of Shah’s passing made its way around the world on Sunday, stories were told of how he had been was responsible for the opening of far more businesses than ITI and Chado.
Certainly as a tea distributor, Shah’s work made many businesses able to operate successfully. But it was more than that. As Lauren Fox, founder of Alice’s Teacup wrote on Shah’s Facebook page, “When Haley and I lived in Los Angeles many, many years ago, we used to meet weekly for tea at their wonderful tea room, Chado. We kept telling them they should open a tea room in New York and they said, “YOU should open one!” We finally took their advice…” She was not the only one. Story after story appeared, noting that it was Devan’s encouragement and enthusiasm that inspired them to pursue their dreams.
“Many years before there were tea education classes, trade shows and certification courses, there was Devan Shah – a knowledgeable tea expert and resource who tirelessly mentored, advised and empowered individuals, helping the Specialty Tea industry grow into what it is today,” says Donna Fellman, online education director of World Tea Academy. “As one among many who have benefitted directly from his generosity, his expertise and his many contributions to the tea industry, I am both grateful for all he has done and saddened to say goodbye.”
In 2014, World Tea Expo awarded Shah the Cha Jing Lifetime Achievement Award. It was an important opportunity for the tea community to share these stories, the behind-the-scenes support, that he has provided the industry for decades. At that time, James Norwood Pratt professed, “Everyone knows black tea is the most popular tea here and that green tea is second, but few recognize that it is Devan who made chai the third most popular tea in America.”
“Devan Shah simply took the specialty tea world by the horns and made things happen,” says Brian Keating, founder of the Seattle-based Sage Group. “From world-class tearooms to a thriving wholesale distribution business and on to tea festivals and even publishing, Devan made his mark. His energy was simply amazing. The specialty tea industry has lost an exceptional tea expert, entrepreneur and friend. We will miss him dearly.”
“Devan has touched many lives and played an integral part in connecting people worldwide through tea. Gone too soon, my heart is heavy…” says Gail Gastelu of The Tea House Times.
While Shah’s passing has been a terrible shock to many, there are few in the industry who feel it more deeply than his long-term colleague and dear friend, tea expert and author James Norwood Pratt. Pratt was one of the first to try Shah’s teas back in 1990 and they have been closely connected ever since. “I am shattered at the loss of my dear brother. Full stop.”
Shah leaves behind his wife Reena and his children Brendan and Bianca.
To read more about Shah, please click here to read James Norwood Pratt’s tribute written when Shah received World Tea Expo’s Cha Jing Lifetime Achievement Award (now known as the John Harney Lifetime Achievement Award).
A website has been established with information to share information about arrangements and future memorials: http://devanshah.com/