San Francisco Business Times
Couple turns hobby into thriving business, carries
tea ritual to modern world
When Gary Shinner and his wife-to-be Jill Portman bought their engagement rings,
the jeweler performed an ancient tea ceremony.
They were hooked.
The founders of Mighty Leaf Tea hadn't planned to make tea a livelihood. The former Chicago investment banker and a real estate developer took up tea drinking as a hobby, learning about its origins and history, and soon were taking trips to Paris every six months to learn from a master blender.
In 1995, they headed to San Francisco, seeking a market open to new ideas; a place where they could produce and sell their newfound passion: loose leaf tea.
Eleven years into their marriage, Shinner and Portman's company now brings in $1.75 million in annual revenue, and their company, Mighty Leaf, has witnessed 71 percent growth in just three years.
In a country of coffee addicts and corner Starbucks, Shinner and Portman seem to have pulled off a major coup. "Tea in this country has been viewed as stodgy, your grandmother's tea, something you sip when you're not feeling quite well," says Shinner. "Our mission is to dispel that myth. That's why we're Mighty Leaf: Because it rejects the stodgy image of what tea is, it's our stamp, our take on tea."
Mighty Leaf's first incarnation was Tea & Co., a large, airy teahouse with posh digs on Fillmore Street. But after three years of retail, Shinner and Portman decided to expand -- and evolve -- into Mighty Leaf, becoming a wholesaler of loose leaf teas. Banking on the relationships they formed at Tea & Co., they set up shop in Sausalito, producing 25 percent of their product a year for local cafes, restaurants, hotels and universities like Stanford and the University of California, Berkeley, and another 75 percent for national clients.
"Tea & Co. served as our lab to learn what consumers wanted, to continue to develop our interest in our product and to really focus on delivering our product with success. We learned the nuts and bolts of what works with tea and what works with tea and food service," says Shinner.
But as Tea & Co. continued to expand, Shinner and Portman faced endless requests from restaurateurs and hoteliers outside the realm of their tea house. "We had to make a choice to focus from a business standpoint," says Shinner, "We let go of a booster rocket and launched our new brand, Mighty Leaf Tea."
Cultivating a clientele
Taking that risky leap has paid off for Mighty Leaf. With their teahouse, Shinner and Portman cultivated a clientele, not only among tea drinkers and foodies, but also among restaurateurs, chefs and other players in the ever-competitive San Francisco food service industry. "We had the teahouse, we were able to strike up relationships with major food service and major restaurant operators that saw what we were doing from a product standpoint and an educational standpoint," says Portman. "One of the key elements of our success was the relationships we forged."
Those relationships also enabled Portman and Shinner to translate their passion for tea into education and training for their customers. Portman organizes educational seminars for every client, to better train restaurant and wait staff about the history, flavors, caffeine levels and proper preparation and service of tea, as well as the tastiest pairings of tea and food. And her efforts have impressed customers like Doc Miles, director of operations for Mill Valley-based Piatti Restaurant Co.
"I first met Jill at a presentation she was doing on tea. I was fascinated by the tea's origins, its history and the way they (Gary and Jill) had traveled the world in search of tea," says Miles, who uses Mighty Leaf exclusively in about half of Piatti's restaurants. "They've been able to change and grow with the market, and to react to competitive influences. ... Since we've used them, we've seen an increase in our tea sales."
Importing tea leaves directly from countries like Sri Lanka, China, Japan and India, Portman and Shinner have developed a patented packaging system -- a teapot on the go -- that allows their product to be served in what tea aficionados deem its purest form: the whole leaf. Mighty Leaf tea bags are portable like traditional tea bags, say Shinner and Portman. But, they say, unlike brand name teas that offer enticing aroma without delivering the flavor -- because of those pesky tea bags -- Mighty Leaf's mesh tea bags allow 14 varieties like herbal, mint and black tea blends, rife with chunks of fruit like orange and mango or flecks of herbs such as lemongrass and jasmine, to pack a punch.
And processing all the teas locally in small batches (hundreds of pounds versus tons upon tons) enables Shinner and Portman to control quality, and to deliver the freshest tea. "Within a matter of weeks, we can source, receive and blend our product, so when we send it out to customers, the product they are receiving has been blended in 60 days, in the package from the time we receive it, which is very unusual," says Portman.
Shinner and Portman say they are part of a nationwide trend. Like wine and chocolate, tea brews devotion, even fanaticism, in its drinkers. Portman finds that customer loyalty and feedback -- those relationships she's created with virtual strangers -- moving and rewarding. "The personal dialogues that I have with so many people ... because their tea bag arrived at the Peninsula Hotel at four in the morning, and it brought something into their life so important that they took the time to email me -- I love it."
Shinner and Portman hope to continue to inspire with their teas, and to promote the tea-drinking trend, creating awareness about tea while building the Mighty Leaf brand. "We see ourselves becoming the specialty tea company in this country," says Shinner.
Julie Ratner is a staff writer for the
San Francisco Business Times
Mighty Leaf Tea Company
136 Mitchell Blvd.
San Rafael, CA 94903
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