News & Trends
Rishi TeaDate: 11/01/10 | Source: Specialty Food Magazine | Author: Emily Gold
Categories: Industry Operations; Suppliers
Joshua Kaiser founded Rishi Tea in 1997 with the belief that consumers would take to drinking artisan teas as readily as they had to consuming single origin coffees and chocolates. He wanted to import the handcrafted teas that he was able to enjoy while traveling in Asia and to introduce tea culture to Americans. Kaiser recruited long-time friend Benjamin Harrison, whose experience in sales and business development complemented Kaiser’s knowledge. Harrison is currently co-owner and vice president of sales. In 2009, Todd Wickstrom joined the team as chief operating officer of the rapidly growing Milwaukee, Wisc.-based company.
According to Wickstrom, what makes Rishi special is scrupulous attention to the product and the direct buy-sell relationship from farm to customer. “Everything we do is direct. We don’t buy from brokers, we buy directly from the farms. We also sell directly. We don’t have to depend on other people for our sourcing or for our selling.”
Kaiser spends six to nine months per year traveling to tea-producing regions, sourcing teas and herbs from their origin. Although expensive—in both time and money—it allows Rishi to maintain consistency, quality and traceability. Wickstrom explains that, “not only is Joshua going to select better products each year but he is working with a lot of different farms and co-ops in multiple regions to be able to create a better living for their communities.”
A Grounding in Fair Trade
A percentage of sales of Masala Chai goes directly to the Roots and Shoots program and revenue also is funneled into the Mannong Manmai project in China, which is the source for the organic, Fair Trade black tea in Rishi’s chai.
The basic principles of Fair Trade—establishing a fair price for the product, fair labor conditions, direct trade, community development and environmental sustainability—have been a core part of Rishi’s approach. Kaiser was even a pioneer in establishing fair trade associations in China, explains Wickstrom. These Fair Trade partnerships support such projects as new schools and health clinics, improved roads, clean drinking water and community worship centers. Rishi’s involvement in the Mannong Manmai Ancient Tea Association in China, begun in 2007, provided funds to send the first child from the village to college.
Helping Farmers Develop Skills
Expansion is important for the company and finding new farmers and sources is always a priority. Kaiser spends about 25 percent of his time working with conventional tea farms to support their transition to organic methods. These efforts recently brought him to Laos, Cambodia and Nepal. In the first half dozen years, Kaiser was educating himself about tea. While that is still part of his mission, increasingly he has been involved in teaching farmers techniques for harvesting and processing that will ultimately bring more revenue into the communities. For example, he might suggest a different processing technique that is better suited to an oolong than a black tea to create a product that could command a higher profit.
Key Partners and Projects
Respected primatologist Jane Goodall contacted the Rishi team a year and a half ago to collaborate on a project called Roots and Shoots which, through the Jane Goodall Institute, supports youth-led campaigns in making positive change in communities in 100 countries around the world. The Rishi team decided to support this program through sales of its Masala Chai concentrate.
A percentage of sales per unit of Masala Chai goes directly to the Roots and Shoots program (Rishi has committed to a six-figure contribution over three years). Revenue also is funneled into the Mannong Manmai project in China, which is the source for the organic, Fair Trade black tea in the chai. The tea concentrate, packaged in an environmentally friendly aseptic tetra pak, was a 2010 sofi™ Silver Finalist for Outstanding New Product 2010.
Rishi remains active in its home city as well. The company is supportive of the local arts, participating in museum fundraisers and even partnering with a local university to sponsor a global music festival. Rishi’s first event with the Milwaukee chapter of Roots and Shoots was the International Day of Peace on September 19, which took place at a community garden and offered family activities along with refreshing herbal teas. Another program that Rishi partners with is the local chapter of Growing Power; spent tea leaves are composted and used to fertilize the organization’s urban gardens.
The company launched 12 new loose leaf teas this year, including three chais and six caffeine-free, organic “wellness blends.” Rishi plans to launch two additional chai concentrates next year in collaboration with Goodall’s program. The team is also closely examining the company’s carbon footprint and is in the process of making its packaging more recyclable.
Wickstrom sums up Rishi’s philosophy: “Sometimes when people think of philanthropy, they think of it as something that they do in addition to what they normally do. For us, it’s directly connected to who we are… Instead of us writing a check after all the other bills have been paid to support work somewhere, it’s built in to the actual product that we’re selling.”—Emily Gold
To view all of the companies featured in the November/December 2010 Specialty Food Magazine dedicated to companies that give back, click on the following link: Three Companies that Give.
More Articles in Industry Operations
Read the Digital Edition
Read the Current Issue of
Specialty Food Magazine
NEW "Java Buzz" Char Crust® Rub
by Char Crust Inc.