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Originally published May 13, 2011 at 6:15 PM | Page modified May 13, 2011 at 7:57 PM

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MarketSpice tea shop celebrates 100 years in Seattle

In a city known as the home of a coffee company that took the world by storm, tea is sometimes overlooked in Seattle. But in the heart of Pike Place Market is MarketSpice, a tea and spice shop that has held its own for 100 years.

Seattle Times staff reporter

MarketSpice teas

Most popular blend: MarketSpice Tea, made of black tea, cinnamon, orange flavoring and spices, costs $13 a pound. In 2009 and 2006, this blend took first place in the flavored black iced-tea category at the World Tea Expo.

Most expensive blend: Silver Needle White Tea costs $112.95 a pound. It's hand-picked and harvested from China during only a few days in spring.

Blend that will get you the sleepiest: Knockout Tea is made of camomile, raspberry leaf, catnip and other relaxing herbs. A pound of this blend goes for $19.95.

Source: MarketSpice

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In a city known as the home of a coffee company that took the world by storm, tea is sometimes overlooked in Seattle. But in the heart of Pike Place Market is MarketSpice, a tea and spice shop that has held its own for 100 years.

"It's not without its struggles, but it continues to grow every year," says manager Nancy DeWitt, in between cutting celebratory cakes and weaving in and out of tea and spice racks to help customers Friday afternoon.

Not much is known about MarketSpice's early history since it was established in 1911; most of the shop's records were kept in a storage area that flooded about 10 years ago. Pike Place Market has been its only home, although it previously was a floor below its current location and called Specialty Spice Shop.

The store offers more than 100 different teas and more than 200 spices, along with coffee, candles and some accessories. The blended teas and spices are all prepared in the MarketSpice warehouse in Redmond. The company ships to customers across the U.S. and sometimes internationally, and it sells some products through a few retailers, such as Bartell Drugs and QFC.

MarketSpice employees say with certainty that one of the second owners was named Ruby Rutelonis. Inspired by her husband's pharmaceutical practice of flavoring medicines with oils, Rutelonis created the recipe for the store's trademark MarketSpice Tea blend, a black tea infused with cinnamon and orange.

Kirkland-based Samuel & Co bought the company about 30 years ago, around the time its name was changed to MarketSpice.

DeWitt started running MarketSpice almost 10 years ago and says she has observed a marked increase in orders throughout the years.

Take its namesake MarketSpice Tea, for example. When DeWitt started, the store typically sold about 200 pounds of the tea a week; now it sells between 350 and 400 pounds a week, she said.

She credits higher sales to healthier lifestyles. "I think that people are wanting a healthy alternative to sodas or other things [like] coffee, for instance," she says.

Joe Simrany, president of the Tea Association of the United States of America based in New York, likewise pointed to tea's health benefits as a reason for why the U.S. has been drinking more tea recently.

"The United States is a big coffee-drinking country and a gigantic soft-drink-consuming country, so there was a lot of competition," he says. "So we had to get very clever, and we looked to all of the marketing tools at our disposal, the affordable ones, and we said, 'Boy, tea has always been considered a healthy beverage. Let's capitalize on the health aspects of tea.' "

In 1990, the total wholesale value of tea being sold in the U.S. was less than $2 billion, and last year it was close to $8 billion, Simrany said, adding that the advent of ready-to-drink tea like Snapple and specialty teas also contributed to the increase in U.S. consumption. Also, the U.S. imported almost 280 million pounds of tea last year, which was a record, he added.

Another way tea sets itself apart from coffee is that a lot of blends are actually sought by customers to help relax or fall asleep, says assistant manager Angela DeWitt, Nancy's daughter. She says MarketSpice's Knockout Tea — camomile, catnip and other relaxing herbs — is one of its top-five selling blends.

But how exactly has MarketSpice been able to stick around for as long as it has? Like with any business, you have to find a way to keep the customers coming back, manager Dewitt says.

Janet Nicholas, a 68-year-old Bellevue resident, has been a fan for about 40 years. On Friday, she bought some of the store's Indian Assam Tea for her birthday tea party next month.

"I do drink coffee, but I just prefer tea at certain times of the day," she says. "When you say, 'Come stop by for a cup of tea,' it doesn't mean just tea, it means 'Have a conversation with me; what's been going on with you?' "

Joanna Nolasco: 206-464-3263 or jnolasco@seattletimes.com

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