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 (Camellia sinensis, Theaceae) entrepreneur and visionary who was once described as “Merlin meets Marco Polo” by Tazo® brand strategist Steve Sandstrom, was one of these people.
On March 23, Smith died at age 65 at his home in Lake Oswego, Oregon, due to complications from liver cancer.
“Steve Smith was some kind of genius when it came to tea and also to business,” said tea educator and writer James Norwood Pratt, who knew 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. He attended Portland State University before dropping out and joining the Navy during the Vietnam War. He spent his years of service on the aircraft carrier USS Hancock, which was patrolling waters and engaged in operations in Southeast Asia.
After Smith was discharged from the Navy, he saw potential in the early organic food movement and took a job as a manager of a natural foods store. When the store was closing, a regular customer named Stephen Lee purchased a large amount of the store’s remaining inventory of herbs and spices and launched the Stash Tea Company. 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 of products in just three weeks. He joined Stash as a co-founder, and the pair was 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, 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 (Mentha × piperita, Lamiaceae) through Stash. They redeveloped a wheat threshing machine, were trained to drive tractor-trailers, 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 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.
“I met Steve Smith in the 90s,” recalled Pearl Dexter, Tea Magazine founding editor. “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 when 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, café, 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.
—Katrina Ávila Munichiello
This tribute originally appeared in World Tea News. Credit: World Tea News. Reprinted with permission
From the moment Steve began harvesting peppermint in the fields of Oregon in the early ‘70s, he displayed the brilliance, ingenuity, and entrepreneurial spirit that marked his entire career. I was honored to have known him in those early days when he was my vendor at Celestial Seasonings, and I am privileged to have had him as a friend and colleague throughout the many phases of his ventures. He had an incredible design eye, great taste buds, and amazing creativity that produced products that have enriched the lives of millions of people. Everything he did was marked with a personal graciousness that made you realize you were in the presence of a very special person. May Steve journey on to ever greater fields of creativity.
—Caroline MacDougallFounder and CEO, Teeccino Caffé
Steven has been a friend and mentor for many years. His knowledge, humor, and open humanity have been an inspiration to me and all who have had the honor of knowing him. We will miss his guidance and most of all his presence.
—Ray WolfsonCo-Owner, Matrix Marketing
Steve was a valued friend for over 35 years, and he was a supporter of the educational mission of ABC. He was highly creative and generous, and he played a prominent role in introducing high-quality teas to the American market. His legacy of uncompromising excellence and his dedication to the communities that grew his teas touched lives around the world and forever altered the tea market in the United States and beyond.
—Mark Blumenthal Founder and Executive Director American Botanical Council