Tuesday, July 2, 2013

A Twofold Love Affair

I love a good story, and after yesterday's post that referenced Mighty Leaf as the tea supplier for Royal Park Hotel, I decided to share the story with you.   I read it several years ago, and because of its uniqueness, I never forgot it.

We all have our own individual stories of how we became lovers of tea, but for Gary Shinner and Jill Portman their 'story' is a love story within a love story, and it's also one 'mighty' success story!

Gary and Jill became interested in tea at an unlikely place.  The couple got their first taste of whole-leaf tea one summer day back in 1990.  Gary, an investment banker, and Jill, an interior architect, had met at a political fundraiser a few years earlier in their hometown of Chicago. Soon came love, then came tea!  As the couple shopped for engagement and wedding rings in Chicago's jewelry district, a jeweler brought out a pot of fragrant, aromatic Chinese oolong tea, and invited them to participate in a Chinese tea ceremony.  The tea ritual and multi-sensory experience produced their tea epiphany. They became hooked on the beverage!

[Photo courtesy of Inc. Magazine]

Both health-conscious individuals, Jill said she found it imperative to take a few minutes out of her stressful job in the corporate world everyday to enjoy a soothing cup of tea to 'center' herself.

In 1992, while sitting at a juice bar they became aware of the market for healthy beverages. Their research revealed tea would be the trend of the 1990's, so they began working on a plan to quit their corporate jobs so they could open a retail tea business.  Since they didn't have any retail experience, Jill got a job at a Starbucks in Evanston, IL [far enough away so clients wouldn't see her], and spent three months waking up at 4:00 a.m. to work a three-hour shift. She was impressed with Starbucks emphasis on selling the 'gourmet experience.'

Further immersing themselves in the world of tea, they traveled to Asia and Europe where they became master tea blenders.  When they returned to the U.S. in 1995, they packed up their belongings in Chicago and moved to California's San Francisco Bay Area.

Twelve months later they turned their passion for tea into a fulfilling business, by opening a tea house called, Tea and Company located in the hip neighborhood of Pacific Heights.  They served their first cup of tea for $1.75 in 1996.  At their peak in 1999 they were serving 300 customers a day, and bringing in $400,000 in annual revenue, but it wasn't enough to cover the high expenditures they incurred.

They shut down the tea house and founded Might Leaf Tea in 2000.  Their passion for whole leaf tea and crafting innovative blends made them stand out from the pack.  They pioneered the silken mesh bags filled with precise portions of whole leaf teas, which made it easy for today's mobile society to enjoy quality whole leaf teas conveniently.  Next came the tea pouch, which allowed even fuller tea leaves and chunks of fruit to unfurl in more space, releasing their fullest flavor.

In the early days the couple associated tea with romance, relaxation, and health benefits, but today profit and loss are a big part of the equation.  

Mighty Leaf Tea can be enjoyed at upscale hotels, resorts, restaurants, cafes, and coffee bars across the U.S., as well as purchased in specialty-food shops and grocery stores nationwide. 

Below is the Mighty Leaf Tea Chest used at the Biltmore Inn, in Asheville, N.C. when I visited in 2012.  Instead of the glass vials that were used in the tea chest at the Royal Park Hotel, this chest contains clear plastic jars with screw-on lids.  Either way, the presentation is lovely.

Don't you love a success story, and when it pertains to tea, it's even better!  Thank you Gary and Jill for bringing the tea market a superior product.

The beverage pictured below is called the "Mighty Swizzle."   It came from a Mighty Leaf distributor in Sweden, and was shown on Mighty Leaf's Facebook page.  I think a non-alcoholic version could easily be made.  Doesn't it look yummy!

[Photo courtesy of Mighty Leaf Tea Facebook Page]


  1. Fascinating! I always love hearing how new companies came to be. The drink does look good.

  2. Great story, Phyllis. I enjoyed reading about Mighty Leaf Tea. Have a great 4th of July!
    Blessings, Beth

  3. Yes, a great story! And a great looking drink!

  4. A great story with a happy ending Phyllis. I've had Mighty Leaf Tea offered at restaurants in Ontario as well, and it is a brand sold by an on-line tea supplier I sometimes use. Yup, that drink looks like summer, and a non alcoholic version would be fine for me.


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