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San Francisco Chronicle
October 10, 2003
Entrepreneurs see a lifestyle in their tea leaves
By Cynthia Liu Wollman
In the quickly expanding tea industry, Sausalito's Mighty Leaf Tea stands out with its patented Tea Top lid which transforms a disposable paper cup into a portable teapot and mesh sachet tea bags containing whole leaves of tea. The company's goal is to "bridge the gap between quality and experience of the whole leaf product with the convenience of a bag," said co-founder and President Jill Portman, 45.
Mighty Leaf Tea has more than 5,000 food industry accounts in Asia, Canada and the United States, including San Francisco's Mandarin Oriental and Four Seasons hotels, and Boulevard restaurant. Portman estimates the company has grown 125 percent each year for the past three years.
Portman's husband, co-founder and Chief Executive Officer Gary Shinner, 48, said that with their products, "design is part of the experience, not just a vehicle."
The food-grade nylon tea bags are 100 percent inert while unbleached tea bags may impart a paper taste and have chemical byproducts, he explained. Unlike paper tea bags, the fabric bag allows for expansion of whole tea leaves.
After all, there is no point in using high-grade tea if it will be crushed to dust and packaged in restrictive paper bags.
The impetus for the tea bag and Tea Top lid was the couple's Tea & Company teahouse, which they operated from 1995 to 2000 on Fillmore Street in San Francisco. They wanted to offer whole leaf tea while maintaining consistent quality and still get the customer out the door in less than a minute.
For 15 years, Portman and Shinner were in stressful jobs in Chicago - he as an investment banker and she as a real estate developer. Portman found it imperative "to be able to find a moment to have a wonderful, soothing cup of tea -- even for just five minutes," and she continues to practice that now, even as she shuttles her children from one activity to another.
Portman and Shinner drink 10 to 15 cups of tea a day. They became serious tea connoisseurs when they were shopping for engagement rings and a jeweler friend performed a Chinese tea ceremony for them with an unforgettable floral oolong tea.
A couple of years later, they were ready to turn that passion into a fulfilling business, Portman said.
Both are health-conscious, especially Shinner, who drank wheatgrass daily.
They originally wanted to open a juice bar and smoothie shop, but the perishability of the product made tea a more attractive option.
Their research indicated that tea would be the next trend of the 1990s. They believed that food trends usually began on the West Coast, particularly San Francisco, and they had relatives in Marin, so they packed their bags and moved to the Bay Area.
"We knew that there was going to be an open mind for what we were doing," Skinner said.
The original Mighty Leaf Tea line has black, green and herbal teas, including rare estate varietals. Yet the company is also known for blends such as California Fields, a combination of sunflowers, cactus flowers, rhubarb and Chinese black and green teas.
Ginger Twist, a blend of Australian ginger, citrus, lemongrass, mint, papaya, ginseng and licorice, "was the best cup of tea I ever had," said Niki Leondakis, executive vice president of the Kimpton Hotels and Restaurants group, who has been instrumental in Mighty Leaf Tea's success. She likes the quality, "unique blends" and the whole leaves.
Portman and Shinner have just created a more upscale line called ML, which has more blends and organic teas. It is offered by the Ritz Carlton and the Park Hyatt. ML includes the Orchid Oolong with a hint of coconut; Celebration with black tea and fruit that has a nose of chocolate and rose; and the Green Tea Tropical blend, which is accented by tropical fruits such as guava and pineapple.
Gaby Skurnick, the purchasing agent and kitchen manager at Jardiniere in San Francisco, finds that "there's been a real renaissance in tea service."
She likes that Mighty Leaf Tea is a "locally based company that handcrafts these teas using the finest ingredients from around the world." The herbal- and fruit-based teas sell particularly well at the end of a meal - "people appreciate another alternative to decaf coffee."
Fine tea has subtle multi-dimensional nuances -- the "same kind of quality as fine wine," said Portman. She suggests pairings such as chocolate with the full-bodied Celebration or palate-cleansing sorbets with Chamomile Citrus, which includes rose hips, lemongrass and hibiscus.
Ever since their engagement tea ceremony, Porter and Shinner have felt the need to parlay their experience into one for their customers. "Tea is a multi-sensory, multi-dimensional experience," Shinner said.
They wish to bring that to the customer, from the first scent of the aroma to the tactile experience of the mesh tea bags, the elegant visual presentation and, finally, the taste. Shinner finds tea to be "more the mindset of retreat and contemplation" while "coffee is more the go-go culture."
"In the times we live in right now, I think it's important that everyone find a place to really take a moment and come back to center," Portman said.
Mighty Leaf Tea Company
136 Mitchell Blvd.
San Rafael, CA 94903