Choice Blend: Drinking to Your Health

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Two men talk by a campfire. Subsequent conversations simmer for more than a year and eventually ignite a new branding idea: joining a tea packer and a university.

“I just about fell off my chair,” says Eric Ring of Choice Organic Teas, remembering when he first learned that Tim Callahan, the guy across the fire from him one night in Fort Flagler State Park on Marrowstone Island in Puget Sound, was senior vice president and provost of Bastyr University. Bastyr is the largest college of naturopathic medicine in the United States and its campus is in Kenmore, a leafy suburb north of Seattle.

Ring had been ruminating for months about a new line of teas to target the wellness market. Callahan asked a few questions and, eventually, they agreed on a partnership. The new teas, designed by an herbalist at Bastyr, had their spotlight moment in March at the largest natural food trade show of the year in Anaheim, California. If all goes according to plan, the teas will be on store shelves this spring.

“We expect this wellness line to make a significant contribution to our overall sales,” says Anne-Marie Phillips, head of sales and marketing at Choice. Across the United States, yearly sales by “natural” retailers of medicinal tea in bags total more than $23 million, she says. Choice hopes expanding into wellness tea can help it achieve double-digit growth.

When customers choose a tea for digestion or mental focus or better breathing from the new Choice line, a portion of the sales will contribute to scholarships at Bastyr. Callahan also hopes the Bastyr name on the box will help consumers, even future students, learn about the university. For Choice, the grounding of the line in expert advice from an herbalist adds credibility among a corps of discriminating customers.

In the retail trade, consumers of wellness products are known as LOHAS buyers, the acronym signifying a “lifestyle of health and sustainability.” One analyst called this consumer the “the leading-edge portion of the population that is attracted by their belief systems and values.” Wellness teas grown organically aim at that consumer, Phillips says.

The administrative offices of Choice Organic Teas sport telltale signs that this is more than a typical warehouse operation. First, there’s the stained-glass window featuring a blue teapot with cup and saucer. Then there’s the intimate tea-tasting lab with the stainless steel Indian cupping spittoon—almost five feet high—that stands gleaming next to porcelain cups holding samples ready for a formal tasting.

Everywhere in the building is a pervasive, delicate scent. It permeates cardboard boxes piled high with teas from around the world. A rhythmic clicking-clacking noise comes from machines that assemble tea bags from completely compostable materials. Papers and tea leaves feed in from the left side, while, in the middle, whirring parts fold, measure and sew a knot to keep the string on the bag. The bags are covered with wrappers, and a pincher takes 16 at a time and tosses them into retail boxes.

Choice is the leading seller of organic green and black teas in the United States. It opened in Seattle in 1989 and made a name for itself as a pioneer in both organic and fair-trade sourcing. The parent company is Granum Inc., which started as a food importer in 1980. Granum also sells sea salt and a line of nori (seaweed) products.

Tea sales nationwide have been growing steadily. Figures show 2011 was the 20th year of consumer growth in tea consumption in America. According to The Tea Association of the USA, supermarket sales of tea exceeded $2.2 billion in 2011. Tea sales at restaurants and other away-from-home sites have grown 10 percent annually during the past decade.

Choice has its headquarters in a roughly 30,000-square-foot warehouse, office and packing facility in the Georgetown neighborhood of industrial Seattle, south of downtown. It buys wind-power certificates to compensate for the carbon footprint created by electricity use in its building. Choice has about $10 million in gross annual sales and hopes to grow steadily in the next five years to double that amount, according to production head Ray Lacorte.

Since its founding in 1989, Choice has been importing and packing tea into bags under its own label and under private labels for other clients. The company’s founder, Blake Rankin, won praise and national prominence for pioneering both organic and fair-trade processes. He sold Granum and Choice Organic Teas in 2007 to Innovative Organics, which is now controlled by a subsidiary of the 150-year-old Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation, a sprawling conglomerate based in India.

Granum has 30 employees and hardly any staff turnover. Lacorte, the head of operations, has been with the company almost 20 years. Ring, head of purchasing and production, has been there 15. Phillips jokes that she’s the newbie, with five years of service.

That scent inside their building, by the way, is the fragrance of Camellia sinensis, the tea plant. But it also happens to be the sweet smell of success: Last year, Choice Organic’s Genmaicha green tea won first place at the North American Tea Championship.

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