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Sarah Kirton
Created on Aug 16th, 2023
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Tea Chest Hawaii 2023: Tea Offerings from Paradise

Byron Goo, CEO of Tea Chest Hawaii, gives DeliveryRank the opportunity to delve into their world of tea. Discover a 25-year journey of award-winning teas with Tea Chest Hawaii, a testament to the unique essence of the Hawaiian islands. Representing a fusion of Asian, American, and native Hawaiian cultures, these teas embody diversity and balance. Each cup invites you to experience tranquility, offering a comforting blend of warmth, relaxation, and well-being amidst the fast-paced world. Tea Chest Hawaii encapsulates this captivating essence, one sip at a time.

Tea Chest Hawaii has a rich history dating back to 1995 when it was founded by Byron and Satomi Goo. Can you share with us the journey of Tea Chest Hawaii, from its origins as a distributor of fine teas to becoming a renowned tea maker with award-winning blends?

Our story is like that of the Phoenix, a bird that is reborn from the fire and ashes in Greek and Egyptian mythology.  Over our 27 year journey, we weathered many storms, 9-11, 2008-2009 recession and most recently COVID.  We’ve had to reinvent ourselves a few times to improve and remain relevant.

In our early days, we saw an opportunity for better tea products so we sold imported products like darjeeling and english breakfast tea. We were the first full-service tea company that catered to the hospitality industry revolutionizing product and equipment selection in Hawaii as well as offering professional training and support. The consciousness in America for tea drinking was mostly tea by colors - green or black. And, it’s hot in Hawaii so the market was small for hot tea products from India or Sri Lanka. Visitors coming to Hawaii drank orange juice at home but opted for pineapple juice during their vacation. If they did that for juice, then why not tea? That’s when we got the idea for a passion fruit iced tea. None was available at the time so we had to figure out how to make one. That was the birth of our manufacturing division. One of our first products, our Original Blend Nilgiri Iced Tea, won the title Best Iced Tea in America in a national  competition sponsored by the US Tea Association.  This gave us credibility as tea makers. 

In the summer of 2020, the first year of COVID, our hospitality customers were shut down and B2B revenue dropped 80%. The phoenix had to rise again and it led to amazing innovation within the company. We invested heavily into digital capabilities with additions to our team and technology. The pivot was challenging but also very rewarding because it brought us closer to consumers we affectionately call our online ohana. Through surveys and interviews, we learned what they wanted tea to do for them and our team was able to respond with amazing products.

Your company prides itself on selecting teas that capture the essence of Hawaii, with flavors like lilikoi, coconut, and strawberry guava. How do you infuse these unique flavors into your teas, and what makes them stand out from traditional teas?

We’ve always wanted to capture flavors and traditions of Hawaii in our products. The tropical fruits and plants that grow here are incredible but different from their counterparts grown elsewhere. From an authenticity standpoint, we didn’t find these tastes in the marketplace so we had to build a supply chain that works with us to be true to the place we come from. It started with producing flavoring that replicated the tastes we grew up with. This has grown into working with local farmers to produce ingredients we can use in our teas.

The concept of "malama" or stewardship is at the core of Tea Chest Hawaii's values. Could you elaborate on how your company ensures responsible sourcing and supports local growers while preserving the environment and cultural heritage of Hawaii?

Growing up in an island community, we learn early on that natural resources are finite. We are surrounded by water but you can’t drink salt water or use it to water the grass. We need to malama - to care for and protect - our natural resources.  This responsibility extends to relationships inside and outside of the company like the golden rule. Sadly, I feel this part of our culture is being diluted or lost. Malama, stewardship of place and people, is an essential core value for the company and has also become a teaching opportunity for our team.

Suppliers we work with share the same sense of responsibility. For our growers, their land is their home and livelihood. These family owned farms practice regenerative agriculture to avoid chemicals that stay in the environment. Less chemicals means a better life for their family, workers, the community and consumers. This mindset preserves the land for the next generation. Sustainable protocols our growers use include certified organic, biodynamic and Korean natural farming which eliminates chemicals altogether and focuses on the living microbes in the soil.

Supporting other local businesses and fostering a robust tea industry in Hawaii are integral to your vision. Can you tell us more about your efforts in working with local growers and collaborating with top tastemakers and resorts in Hawaii?

Tea and coffee go hand in hand. A passion project of our is for Hawaii to have a local tea industry that complements our state’s renowned coffee industry. We have directed investments of land, capital and labor into the cultivation and processing of tea. We tap our international network to share their expertise and help educate local suppliers. 

Hawaii is home to world class hospitality and the Hawaii Regional Cuisine movement started around the same time we opened for business. We get to work with outstanding chefs and tastemakers both in Hawaii and abroad and it’s an honor when they select our products to serve their guests.

Tea offers not only a delightful range of flavors but also various health benefits. How does Tea Chest Hawaii approach the creation of wellness blends like MANA and OLENA, incorporating high-quality, Hawaii-grown ingredients such as moringa and mamaki to promote immune fitness and reduce inflammation?

Green tea and black tea are naturally healthy and customers gravitated towards functional blends during the pandemic. Whole Foods put turmeric, moringa and hibiscus on their hot list of ingredients and blends with those ingredients continue to be very popular. These ingredients are in our teas for inflammation and pain relief, for stress and anxiety and tea to naturally boost immunity. Our newest wellness blend is a tea for sleep called MAHINA which means moon in Hawaiian.

Few people in the world know that tea culture in Hawaii dates back more than 400 years. Afternoon tea service started 180 years ago. Traditional Hawaiian healers prescribe mamaki tea and other native plant based remedies for general debilities, asthma and fatigue. Science has shown mamaki to be high in antioxidants and nutrients like rutin which helps reduce inflammation. Mamaki has adaptogenic properties to rebalance bodily functions and the FDA confirmed its therapeutic value to treat high blood pressure and high cholesterol. 

It’s been very fulfilling to hear how our teas have helped people with their health. One touching story is actually one of the first reviews we ever received. It was from a soldier who suffered from PTSD. She said our Lemon Chamomile tea is a quick and easy way for her to unwind and has become a part of her stress management routine. She’s a mother of three so her well-being impacts the entire ohana.  This is why I love my job! 

Where to from here?

The company is more resilient than pre-pandemic. Technology helps us be more connected and engaged with both B2B and B2C customers.

We look at tea as a great delivery mechanism for nutrients and better health. Tea is gluten free and fits easily so many lifestyles like vegan and keto.  Plant-based is a big movement and tea is a plant-based product. 

Today there are tea products that are 100% grown in the USA and 100% made in America. When we first started 27 years ago these didn’t exist, let alone thought of.  The Made in the USA badge still stands for quality around the world.

We continue to develop the Hawaii grown supply chain. We now source black tea, moringa, lavender, vanilla, cacao and mamaki from farms in Hawaii. Supporting other Hawaii based businesses has been a very gratifying part of what we do.

Did you know some of the finest tea in the world grows in Hawaii. The farm sits on a bed of volcanic ash in the middle of a native ohia forest that’s 400 years old.  You can taste wild banana and smell the ohia blossoms in the cup. That tea sells in Harrods of London for $4500 a pound. Tea also grows at 4100’ above sea level on Maui, the highest elevation for tea cultivation in North America. The future looks bright like a sunrise over Haleakala.*

*On August 8, 2023, high winds from Hurricane Dora whipped up bushfires that devastated parts of Maui including destroying the historic town of Lahaina, a former whaling port and capital of Hawaii. The farm mentioned in this interview lost its crop of mamaki due to fire but its black tea was untouched.

If you would like to find out more about Tea Chest Hawaii, visit https://teachest.com/

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