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Tea House

Demand is doubling every month for Shashank Goel's organic tea, shipped direct from his family's plantations in India.

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On the Kinzie industrial corridor, deep inside a massive warehouse with hallways wide enough for a forklift, is the office of Ineeka Inc.--corporate headquarters, packing plant, and stockroom all in one tiny space. On a recent morning four employees packed black, green, and herbal teas as well as chais into tins and labeled them. Another employee operated the tea blender--a three-foot jerry-rigged orange plastic mixer. A packing machine chugged directly outside the office of the owner, Shashank Goel. His year-old company, which produces 14 different teas under the labels Ineeka and Treleela, is a rocket in the rapidly growing American artisanal tea market. This month an herbal Treleela, spearmint lavender, won the outstanding-beverage award at the Fancy Foods Show in New York, the gourmet industry's premier convention. Juices, sodas, and chocolate drinks usually take the top prize; it was the first tea to win in a decade.

The black and green tea comes from Goel's family's land--12,000 acres on eight organic plantations in Darjeeling and Assam in far northeastern India, in what are often called the Champagne and Bordeaux regions of tea. For years the family has sold its leaves wholesale to upscale restaurants and tea brands; the tea from their Ambootia estate in Darjeeling, widely considered among the best in the world, is packaged for stores such as Harrods in London and Mariage Freres in Paris, the elite of tea retailers. Early last year Goel and his wife, Sumita, who've lived in Chicago since 1993, began selling tea under their own label: the marketing of Treleela varieties, whose target is casual consumers, is playful, that of Ineekas, aimed at serious tea drinkers, more conventional. "This was a dream that became a reality," says Goel.

Years ago his New Delhi-born parents arrived in Darjeeling with master's degrees in science and started managing tea estates, working their way up from the bottom. For a time they helped manage the Ambootia plantation, but after they left, the soil became exhausted and yields dropped. They'd built a good relationship with the plantation's employees, and Goel says that in the early 1980s "the workers actually approached my family and said, 'We need you to take this over.'" His parents sold all their assets and bought it. They went back to traditional ways of farming to rebuild the soil, and the yields dropped further before rebounding and then surpassing those on other plantations. Later they learned that the way they farmed allowed them to get their product certified as organic.

Goel left India after he finished college in 1988, moving to the States to go to graduate school in engineering at the University of Michigan. "Like everyone else at that age, you want to do something--my father decided that he wanted to move to the middle of nowhere," he says. "I decided that I was too cool to be part of the family. I don't think I ever wanted to be an engineer." He got his master's anyway.

When his wife enrolled at the School of the Art Institute the couple moved to Chicago, and in 1996 Goel took over the family's wholesale business, spending a lot of time traveling around the globe selling its tea. By then the American specialty tea market was growing at 20 percent a year, and he says companies that had great packaging but a poor product sometimes wanted to buy his tea. "A lot of tea companies here in the United States talk a good game," he says. "'Oh, gee, we're the best tea company--we source from all over the world.' They used to call me and say, 'You guys produce the best teas in the world.' But at the end of the day they really wanted to pay $1.99"--he says growers sell tea for as little as $1 to as much as $2,000 per kilo--"and for $1.99 you get tea that's worth $1.99. And they wanted to flavor it with mango and peach and just rubbish."

Knowing that having his own brand would give him greater control over the quality of the product, along with greater financial security, Goel eventually decided to start packaging and selling his family's best tea himself. The market for organic products was hot, but he knew he could easily back up his claim to that standard. "Every company is using the terms 'environmentally' and 'socially responsible,'" he says. "It's like become a fad--Boeing's using it. So what does it really mean?" Brian Keating of the Sage Group, a tea market-research firm in Seattle, says there's a lot of opportunism in the industry--companies attempting to exploit consumer enthusiasm for environmentally responsible products. "It's refreshing to see someone saying, 'Here's the estate, here's the hill the tea came from, here are the certificates--we'll give you a half pound of documents,'" he says. "We're able to get phone numbers of people who've visited the estate. They're one of the few companies that are transparent." Each of the wooden boxes of tea in the stockroom is marked with the plantation and the specific part of the field it came from.

Goel says that from the beginning his family has also offered the workers on their plantations health care, schooling for their children--attendance is mandatory--and private plots of land where they can grow whatever they choose. The estate contracts with the workers to buy manure from their cows and sheep to use as fertilizer, and it buys ginger and other products grown on those plots for its tea blends. "We support 25,000 people," he says. "If I don't do what I'm doing, there's no subsistence for those people." He adds that it isn't just about compassion--happy workers are also good workers. He knows lots of companies tout their fair-trade practices and charitable donations, but, he says, "We don't do any charities, we don't give profits away to so-and-so group and so-and-so group, because at the end of the day, if you look at these companies, how much really goes?"

Ineeka and Treleela teas have been picked up by eco-conscious national retailers such as Whole Foods and Wild Oats, and Goel is now hiring sales staff to sell more locally. A few places, like Swim Cafe on Chicago Avenue, have carried Ineeka teas since he started making them. Its owner, Karen Gerod, learned about the company because her husband has a studio in the same industrial corridor. "The quality of what they're doing is so great," she says.

She's also attracted by the company's unusual tea bag. As Goel explains, "I'd been wanting to do a retail brand for a long time, but I didn't want to do loose tea--I knew Americans were still convenience focused. I didn't want to do a tea bag, because a tea bag--you only put junk tea in there." Serious drinkers shun tea bags, which are filled with broken leaves and tea dust. In the year before he started Ineeka, Goel worked on what he calls the Brew Tache: a large bag that opens and stretches over the sides of a cup, giving the leaves inside almost as much room to expand as in a teapot. "Good tea is like a good wine," he says, pointing to the bag in the cup he's just poured hot water into. "You need it to unfurl completely. In a closed tea bag you can never put that huge leaf in there, so you don't get the top notes." In teaspeak, that's the initial taste or foreground. Keating agrees. "Anytime you have a system that delivers longer-leaf tea," he says, "you absolutely get a better cup, with more complexity and character." He calls the tea bag and the company's sleek packaging, designed by Sumita, "leading edge--it's boutique grade."

Ineeka's business is now doubling monthly. Flavored teas dominate the market, but Goel is convinced the next consumer wave will be into "pure stuff." He doesn't use flavorings or oils, as many companies do, blending in only whole herbs and spices. Eighty percent of the ingredients in Ineeka's products come from his family's plantations, the rest from family farms that are also certified organic--vanilla from Madagascar, lavender from France. Last year the company won an Innovate Illinois award, a competition run by the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity to find the state's most innovative small businesses. Goel says, "I won the award not because of my gizmo"--meaning his tea bag--"but because of our sustainability, which really is very traditional but now has become very innovative." At the finals, he says, "I was the last to present, and I went up and said, 'I really don't know what to say, because there are people here that are biotech companies--they're fighting water pollution.' I said, 'I'm just a tea company. I'm not even a coffee company.'"

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Paul Merideth.

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