Elevating the Tea Leaf at Mighty Leaf Tea

How Gary Shinner began with hand-sewn tea bags and ended up with a beverage empire

Rarely is the local café successful enough to become a food service supplier. Even more rare is the food service supplier that can successfully expand into retail stores. That such a business could then develop into a prominent lifestyle brand with a celebrity chef following and an international reach is something husband-and-wife team Gary Shinner and Jill Portman could only dream of when they first launched the company that would become Mighty Leaf Tea.

Coffee shop culture was taking America by storm in the mid-nineties, as was a new consumer focus on health and wellness, and a demand for premium food and beverage. Entrepreneurial visionaries who recognized the opportunity in this trifecta were able to capitalize on it, and Shinner and Portman were among them.

The original idea was to become tea’s answer to the coffee shop, offering a handcrafted, gourmet, and healthful alternative to coffee. A revolutionary delivery system was developed for the company’s whole leaf teas: a hand-stitched tea pouch, devoid of the glue and staples often found in standard tea bags. The artisan-designed pouch allowed for complex blends of whole leaf tea to properly steep, creating a highly sensory, top-notch product that was different than everything else on the market at that time. “Our goal was to inspire the renaissance of tea and recreate the paradigm of the tea experience,” Shinner says. “We wanted to infuse it with new energy.”

“We know what the key to building a lifestyle brand is creating a multisensory experience that customers will come back to because it enhances their lives and self-perceptions.”

This combination of luxurious product and enhanced experience easily formed a ritual for loyal customers at Mighty Leaf Tea, and a powerful lifestyle brand was born. The shop established a large following and impressive reputation, and it wasn’t long before restaurateurs and hoteliers were requesting to serve the tea in their establishments. In 2000, Shinner and Portman decided it was best to close the café and shift their energy to turning Mighty Leaf Tea into a major food service supplier of premium gourmet teas.

A few years later, Shinner and Portman took another risk and entered the retail market in 2005. Whole Foods was one of the first grocery store chains to carry their products, and many other high-end stores followed. “It’s a unique thing for a company to be successful in both the food service and retail industries,” Shinner says. “We are proud of what we have accomplished.”

But Mighty Leaf Tea’s story doesn’t end there. In late 2014, the German investment group Joh A. Benckiser (JAB Holding Company) acquired Mighty Leaf Tea via Peet’s Coffee & Tea—another one of their companies that has become one of the biggest players in the coffee and tea industry in the last few years. Mighty Leaf Tea is now part of an impressive lineup of other companies that are majority-owned by JAB, including Caribou Coffee, Einstein Bagels, Kraft, Sara Lee, and other premium brands of consumer goods. “I’m extraordinarily happy about the acquisition,” says Shinner, who is acting in a temporary advisory role as chief executive officer emeritus. “It’s a great fit, and Jill and I are thrilled to pass the baton to a company that will preserve and grow the brand that we created.”

With the acquisition of Mighty Leaf Tea, both founders are diving headlong into the next chapters of their careers. Portman and Shinner’s new initiative is Shake It Up Brand, which will function as a business accelerator firm. “People are coming to us because they’ve seen what we’ve done with Mighty Leaf Tea and want us to do the same for them,” says Shinner, who is an active partner in the brand. “We know that the key to building a lifestyle brand is creating a multisensory experience that customers will come back to, time and time again, because it enhances their lives and self-perceptions.”

Shinner is also in the process of starting another business in the wellness category. “I’m excited to be building a brand from scratch with great partners,” says Shinner, who plans to spend the majority of his time as chief executive officer of the startup. “The partners in this new company have a great set of skills and expertise, as well as capital to launch nationally.”

Working together as partners in business, and in life, for eighteen years and counting, Shinner and Portman have had the unique experience of observing and encouraging each other’s entrepreneurial spirits. “Being an entrepreneur is an incredible journey on its own, and to share that with our spouse—to grow another child like that—is truly magical,” says Shinner, who believes that the key to their success has been their complete alignment of vision for their business.

Shinner and Portman have nurtured Mighty Leaf Tea over the past twenty years, and are ready to enter the next phase of their journey as entrepreneurs, business leaders, and partners. “It has been so much more than tea,” Shinner says. “But the best is yet to come.”