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Steven Smith dead; founded Tazo tea brand

Tazo's founder Steven Smith, right, and President Tal

Tazo's founder Steven Smith, right, and President Tal Johnson, left, talk about the company's teas with Starbucks Product Manager of New Beverage Concepts Jason Brotmon, middle, in Tazo's tasting lab in Portland, Ore., on March 6, 2001. Credit: AP / John Gress

Steven Smith, a Portland, Oregon-based entrepreneur who helped develop the U.S. market for specialty tea blends by co-founding the Tazo brand now owned by Starbucks Corp., has died. He was 65.

He died on Monday at his home in Portland, according to his daughter, Carrie Smith-Prei. The cause was complications from cancer, she said in a telephone interview.

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 Co. and Steven Smith Teamaker, Smith forged a reputation as a pioneer who added refined tea brands to the menus of the nation's restaurants.

"I felt that by increasing the quality of the product inside, that we could fundamentally change the way people felt about tea," he said, according to a 2012 interview on the Portland Food and Drink website.

Starbucks bought Tazo Tea in 1999, five years after Smith created the brand. The Seattle-based company offers almost 40 varieties of black, green and herbal teas under the Tazo brand through its more than 20,000 locations worldwide, according to its website.

Steven Dean Smith was born on May 29, 1949, in Portland. After dropping out of Portland State University, Smith joined the Navy and served on the USS Hancock aircraft carrier 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 was sold to Japan's Yamamotoyama Co. in 1993.

The next year he started Tazo Tea, selling blends with New Age packaging carrying names such as "Zen" and "Awake" for $4.49 a box, more than double the price paid for most other tea brands, according to a 2014 article in Portland Monthly magazine. Starbucks bought Tazo for $9 million and Smith remained until 2006, when he retired to the south of France.

Coming out of retirement a year later, Smith started Steven Smith Teamaker with a special focus on the origins of each product's exact ingredients. 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 Inc. outlets, the magazine said.


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