Steven Smith, an Oregon-based entrepreneur who helped develop the U.S. market for specialty tea blends by co-founding the Tazo brand now owned by Starbucks, died March 23 at his home in Portland. He was 65.
The cause was complications from cancer, said his daughter, Carrie Smith-Prei.
The Navy veteran entered the tea business after returning from the Vietnam War in 1971 and took high-end tea drinking to mainstream consumers across America. With his companies Tazo Tea, Stash Tea and Steven Smith Teamaker, Mr. Smith added refined tea brands to the menus of the nation’s restaurants.
Starbucks, the world’s biggest coffee-shop chain, bought Tazo Tea in 1999, five years after Mr. Smith created the brand. The Seattle-based company offers nearly 40 varieties of black, green and herbal teas under the Tazo brand through its more than 20,000 locations worldwide, according to its Web site.
After agreeing to buy Atlanta-based Teavana Holdings in 2012, Starbucks began to replace Tazo teas with products from its more recent acquisition, according to a 2014 article on the Web site of Canadian broadcaster CTV.
Steven Dean Smith was born May 29, 1949, in Portland. After dropping out of Portland State University, he joined the Navy and served on the aircraft carrier Hancock during the Vietnam War.
After his discharge, he tapped the growing trend in organic living and managed a health-food store in Portland. He then went into business with Steve Lee and became a partner in Stash Tea.
Stash had annual revenue of $10 million, and it became one of America’s largest specialty-tea companies, according to the Oregonian. It was sold to Japan’s Yamamotoyama Co. in 1993.
The next year, he started Tazo Tea, selling blends with New Age packaging carrying such names as “Zen” and “Awake” for $4.49 a box, more than double the price paid for most other tea brands in the United States, according to a 2014 article in Portland Monthly magazine. Starbucks bought Tazo for $9 million, and Mr. Smith remained at the company until 2006, when he retired to the south of France.
Coming out of retirement a year later, Mr. Smith started Steven Smith Teamaker with a special focus on the origins of each product’s ingredients on the packaging, allowing its customers to read what they were drinking.
With a staff of about 30, the company sells its tea through 2,000 U.S. stores, including Williams-Sonoma Inc. and Whole Foods Market, Portland Monthly said.
Mr. Smith’s first marriage, to Teri Schwarz, ended in divorce. Survivors include his second wife, the former Kim DeMent; a daughter from his first marriage; and a son from his second marriage.