I started this job ten years ago this month knowing nothing about the beverage business.
For no other reason than the fact that I knew the brand Tazo, one of the first calls I made, in a desperate bid to learn the little bit that I know now, was to Steven Smith. I couldn’t have asked for a better way to spend an afternoon. We talked for a couple of hours, discussing what he’d done with Stash and Tazo and his views on craft and life and Starbucks. Much of what we discussed has disappeared from my notes, but the overall feeling of kindness and care for his art was a salve to a reporter who had spent a week trying to sort category from channel, promotion from sales, PET from glass.
I didn’t meet him in person until years later. He was at an Expo East in Baltimore, pouring tea with his new brand, Smith Teamaker, from inside a small booth. I didn’t realize who he was until we started talking over some of his product — but I should have. He was surrounded by beautiful, elegant, little gift boxes of tea, packaged as if they were heirlooms. He poured a ready-to-drink blend from a giant proprietary bottle, one that he suggested might be good for a party. He had reinvented himself and his products from a new, elevated standpoint. As we discussed the possibilities for this oversized RTD, we realized that we’d spent so many hours on the phone years before. We spoke again for what seemed like a long, long time, and I told him how much our first talk had meant. It was a small moment, probably a forgettable one, for him, but for me, it was about connecting, again, with a person I’d felt a treasured connection with from the start. I’ll always remember it.
Steven Smith died of complications from cancer on Monday. A much better writer than I am, the Oregonian‘s Richard Read, has written, quite touchingly, about Smith’s life and last days. The right thing for me to do now is to suggest you read his story; I personally didn’t know Smith well enough to do him justice — but I thought it best to pay my respects.