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Wednesday, July 5, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Choice Organic Teas steeped in principles

Seattle Times business reporter

When Blake Rankin needed another machine that bags tea for his growing West Seattle business, he saw two possibilities: Spend $250,000 on a used machine that staples the bags or shell out four times that amount for a new model that ties knots in them.

Rankin decided it was worth $1 million to keep those little staples out of landfills.

"It's not about the money," he said. "It's about my legacy in the natural-foods industry."

The founder and owner of Choice Organic Teas, Rankin is no dummy — the machine also runs twice as fast as his three stapling models. But he is guided more by a sense of moral obligation to the environment, farmers and consumers than by a desire to expand his business.

That might explain why it is not well known, even locally, that Choice was the country's first exclusively organic tea brand and the first U.S. tea brand to receive Fair Trade certification. The company also buys renewable energy certificates to offset the electricity it uses.

Rankin does not like hype, even when it's for a good cause, and doesn't mind that Choice has gone from having most of the U.S. organic tea market when it started to a small share of today's market, valued at around $159 million.

Blake Rankin


Founder: Choice Organic Teas and its parent company, Granum

Age: 58

Family: Lives with his wife, Nancy, and their teenage son, Addison

Homes: An apartment in Fremont and a straw-bale house on Lopez Island powered by the wind and sun

Common explanation for business decisions: "Profitability is not something I'm deeply concerned about."

"I'm lacking in the MBA drive to succeed," said Rankin, whose company employs about 30 people and has annual sales "way south of $10 million."

Customers certainly would not know the depth of Choice's credentials by reading its tea boxes, which are carried by natural-food stores nationwide and some chain stores.

The boxes bear the U.S. organic label, the Fair Trade Certified label when applicable, a few lines about where the teas were grown — mostly China, India, Japan and Sri Lanka — and directions for making a cup.

The $1 million bagging machine, which arrived in June from Italy and will save about 400 miles of staple wire a year, has spurred the addition of a couple more lines of copy for the boxes it produces, explaining that the teabags have no staples.

The bags are also free of glue and heat-sealed polyfilaments, which often are used to seal stringless bags.

Rankin figures people can decide without prodding whether organic, Fair Trade and knots instead of staples are important to them.

He also doesn't like to "point the evil finger," as he calls it, at other tea companies, some of which sell pesticide-sprayed teas that are first washed when customers pour water over their teabags.

Meanwhile, Rankin wonders why his customers are not more demanding.

"Why are people shrugging their shoulders at what goes into packaging?" he said. "How can they not know what it's like to live on a tea plantation, which can be a miserable experience?"

Rankin chose the organic-food business right out of college in 1970. A math major at the University of California, Los Angeles, he joined friends in opening a natural-foods store that ended up in Victoria, B.C.

He bounced around after that, to a natural-foods distribution company in Seattle, a natural-foods store in Hawaii and then to Japan and other countries to find products for the Seattle distributor.

By 1976, Rankin was working for a natural-foods exporter in Tokyo, from whom he says he picked up his management style, which he describes as "intense, neurotic control."

He has relaxed some as Choice has grown. He cut back on his office hours to spend more time with his family at their home on Lopez Island.

Rankin founded Granum, which owns the Choice brand, in 1980 with $1,500 in credit from his former Tokyo employer. With it, he bought one pallet of food from Japan that he loaded into his Fiat and delivered to friends and stores around Seattle.

Eventually, Rankin's company distributed imported Asian foods in four states and British Columbia.

In the late 1980s, when the value of the dollar fell sharply against the yen, Rankin feared the business would fail. But about half the customers stayed on, paying roughly twice as much as they had before.

Wanting more control over his products, Rankin in 1989 decided to package four organic teas from Japan under the Choice Organic Teas name.

The brand now has nearly 70 products, including loose and bagged tea in flavors from green tea to yerba maté to a liquorice peppermint herbal infusion.

About two-thirds of the teabag products come in paper envelopes without freshness seals, a more environmentally friendly option that suits customers who plan to drink it quickly.

Within the industry, Choice is known for its commitment to Fair Trade certification, which adds costs to the tea but ensures that farmers in developing countries receive living wages. Every tea that can be Fair Trade-certified — about half of Choice's products — is, Rankin said.

"From my perspective, what's distinguished them is Fair Trade. That's their point of difference," said Seth Goldman, co-founder of Honest Tea, which has a popular bottled organic tea.

Anupa Mueller, owner and president of Eco Prima, a tea importer that supplies Choice, Honest Tea and others, has a sister and brother-in-law who own Makaibari Tea Estates in India. Mueller considers Rankin a family friend and said Choice was Makaibari's first organic customer in the United States.

"He's a pioneer," Mueller said. "He really, really puts his money where his mouth is."

Melissa Allison: 206-464-3312 or mallison@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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