LOS ANGELES, Calif.
Devan Shah’s warm smile and generous spirit is evident at a distance.
Born into a family of teachers in Mumbai, India, the role comes naturally. He is able to draw on a lifetime of tea experience that began at age seven during summers with his sister and brother-in-law on a tea plantation in Coonoor in the Nilgiri (Blue Mountains) of Southern India.
As an importer, wholesaler and retailer, Shah blends the various roles with a singular mission; tea education. Having spent his entire life in the tea industry, from the field to the international marketplace, he brings a dynamic perspective to the $2.6 billion specialty tea segment in the U.S.
Shah is best known as a wholesaler, one of the few who has exhibited at World Tea Expo every year since its inception in 2002. His classroom-style booths featuring speakers like author and tea expert James Norwood Pratt who spends hours on the show floor — visible evidence of Shah’s philosophy that education is the key to sales.
Shah is a long-time major sponsor of the Specialty Tea Institute and recently established the Los Angeles Tea Festival for Southern California consumers, serving the message of specialty tea directly to a thirsty public.
Shah explains, “It was a relatively small plantation that processed both CTC and orthodox. I was involved in everything from the fields to the manufacturing.” After majoring in business at the university in Coimbatore, he returned to the tea industry as an assistant broker.
“Every Monday morning I would prepare samples to send to our buyers to determine what would interest them at the week’s auctions. Every week there were three auctions and there would be between 600 and 1,000 lots. I would cup between 300 – 400 samples every week. Our buyers would place their orders, indicating desired quantity and price, and then I would attend the auctions as their representative. My job as a broker was to negotiate the best price. For this, I received a 2-4% commission.”
News of North America’s’ growing interest in whole leaf, single plantation tea inspired Shah to relocate to the U.S.
He quickly established an important role for himself as an expert in trading with India and in 1990 opened his first business.
“My first sale was in Mexico where I went as part of a delegation from the Tea Board of India.” He recalls, “It was 5,000 kilos of CTC.” At that same time he imported his first six chests of premium tea, “. . . a very special green Darjeeling and a long-leaf Nilgiri Chamraj,” and set up his wholesale warehouse in Los Angeles, Calif.
“At that time, the specialty tea market had very little direction and it was difficult for anyone to make a living sourcing to the individual retailers. The market was small. I saw the great need for education, for both retailers and customers. One thing I’ve done from the beginning is to make myself available to my customers when they have questions.”
Keeping a database of their questions, Shah began work on another industry resource. With the help of writer James Norwood Pratt, he published The Tea Dictionary. “This is the information retailers need to prepare their menus, train their staff and to hold tastings for their customers,” he says. “Everything is at their fingertips.”
His advice to retailers: Taste teas constantly and schedule frequent tea tasting events for customers.
ITI has grown into one of the largest tea importers in North American, but Shah continues to personally answer customer questions about the teas, the growers and the processing. He is keen to develop and expand their local educational programs. As he travels around the country, he visits retailers who source from him; consulting personally and helping them understand changes in the worldwide market.
“Being a retailer myself,” Shah explains, “keeps me informed. Having a location in Hollywood, I’m at the heart of where many trends are born. It is also a good place to influence and create trends that will spread throughout the country.”
He and his wife Reena bought their first retail store, Chado, in 2005 and expanded it to three locations in Southern California as well as Chado stores in India.
“Being a retailer is instant gratification. You have your hand on the pulse of the market. If I had to choose only one role in the industry, I would be a retailer. This is really the growing edge of the entire industry.”
He notes enormous differences between the tea business in the U.S. and India. One of the great strengths of U.S. tea retail is that it offers teas from every country of origin. India, a tea producing country, discourages the practice with levies and very high taxes on imported tea.
|Amit Mehta manages Chado Tea in Mumbai, India. This shop is in The Bombay Department Store.|
As a consequence, the retail tea business in India is limited to their native varietals. Very few Chinese, Japanese, Sri Lankan, Taiwanese or other varieties are available. It is the government’s way of protecting the domestic market.
Herbs, like rooibos, do not face these barriers and are beginning to be imported. “The marketing message for tea is also changing in India to something more health conscious. Whole-leaf teas that are steeped rather than boiled are starting to become available. They are popular among the more educated public,” he said.
Last year Shah committed to do even more for education, especially consumer education.
Inspired by his experiences at other consumer shows like the Northwest Tea Festival, he created an L.A. International Tea Festival in August, 2011. The show attracted 2,000 filling the main halls of the Japanese American Museum where one of his Chado restaurants is located. For two days, there were presentations on tea, demonstrations and tastings hosted by a diverse group of exhibitors.
“It is time to give back more to an industry that has been so good to me,” he announced. “So, we’re going to do the same thing in 2012,” he said.