Thursday, March 26, 2015

The death of a genius and the strange fate of tea in coffee chains

I just learned of the death of the wonderful Steve Smith, the product wizard at Stash Teas, inventor of the Tazo brand and more recently the co-founder (with his lovely wife) of Steven Smith Teamaker, yet another amazing venture that pushed the quality envelope for teabag tea into uncharted territory. 

Here's the link to a lovely profile of Steve and his work in The Oregonian, and here's a photo of Steve:

I've written a couple of previous posts here detailing the sad history of tea at Starbucks and my own lengthy involvement.  Because I was the last tea buyer during the "whole leaf" era I had the pleasure of hosting Steve in the cupping room on numerous occasions. We were such kindred spirits that the old phrase "brothers from another mother" comes to mind: off-the-charts creative types with boundless product passion who idealistically believed that product-driven, product-informed marketing would (or at least should) win the day, even in the corporate world. 

If it hasn't happened already, the history of tea at Starbucks ought to make for a classic case study at Harvard Business School or the like. You have a product-driven company that offered the very best coffee, tea and spices at a time when fresh examples of any of these products were otherwise unavailable. Then trade with the People's Republic of China opens up and your city is the first to benefit, opening the door to offering such legendary teas as Hao Ya Keemun and Yin Hao Jasmine for the first time. 

Fast forward to 1987 and your company is acquire by your director of marketing, whose sentiments about tea are summed up by his advice to customers at his newly-minted ersatz Italian coffee bars: "if you want tea, you can go to China." The loyal tea customer base is sent off to Upton Tea or driven back to Peet's, since (again quoting Mr. Schultz) "if they want the connoisseurs, they can have themem." 

Still, the tea category and those pesky customers who insist on drinking both coffee and tea wouldn't go away, and rather than leveraging its long history in tea the powers-that-be at Starbucks begin to court other brands, starting with Republic of Tea and then buying Tazo, which brought Steve Smith - who was to tea what Gordon Bowker, the marketing genius co-founder of Starbucks - was to coffee - into the fold. 

There was nothing particularly high-end about Tazo but the teas were and are excellent for their price points and the blends, given that they were Steve's, were original and often spectacular. The combination of Steve's capabilities with Starbucks' limitless access to capital ought to have meant that Tazo could become whatever it needed to be to redefine the tea category, but Steve ended up leaving Starbucks, spending a year in France letting his non-compete run out in fine style and then creating yet another new world in tea with his Steven Smith Teamaker brand. 

Starbucks meanwhile seems to think that the Tazo brand has run its course, and has moved on to squandering money on the "Gloria Jean's Coffee Beans" (think Redneck alliteration accompanied by the stench of flavored coffee) of tea, the silly Teavana brand, with Howard now as star-struck by Oprah as he once was by Kenny G. 

Perhaps the "evolution" in logos says it all:

Here you have the Siren motif that inspired the the warm brown of the 1971 original logo. Brown is of course the color of coffee, but green is the color of money and disparaging "the brown look" of the Starbucks stores and packaging began with a vengeance in 1987 as the Il Giornale (the name of the Mr. Schultz's pseudo-Itallian espresso bar chain) logo was merged with an increasingly de-sexed Mermaid over time. As you can see, tea and spices were excommunicated quite early on, but it took until 2011 to remove coffee from the company's identity altogether (though any passion for said product had of course died many years earlier). 

Given the millions of dollars squandered on tea companies and brands here Peet's really does offer an amazing and laudable contrast. Tea has always received equal billing and emphasis in their stores, as a matter of conviction and passion going back to Mr. Peet himself. The whole leaf selection at Peet's is better than ever and both their regular blends and limited edition offerings are exceptional, reflecting the great talent and impeccable palate of buyer Eliot Jordan. 

Other than Peet's, the epitome of a "second wave" roaster-retailer, I'm not aware of any coffee store chains with national ambitions that are doing a serious job with tea (unless you count Intelligentsia, whose Kilogram tea line seems to exist solely to show that it's possible to charge even more usurious prices for poorly selected tea than one can for under-roasted coffee). 

I'd be sorely tempted to say that we need more Steve Smiths, but he was one of a kind and an impossible act to follow, except perhaps by this poem by one of the ancients:

Having picked some tea, he drank it,
Then he sprouted wings,
And flew to a fairy mansion,
To escape the emptiness of the world....

~Chiao Jen