Heather Howitt is pouring a new beverage called Thaiwala from her Pearl District office. It's a long way from northern Thailand, where the black tea that ends up in Thaiwala is organically grown on a 500-acre farm.
"I just love the farmer I work with in Thailand. Her farm is teeming with life, and it helps that she knows I'm crazy," Howitt said, laughing.
Howitt sold her first company, Oregon Chai, in 2004 and has tinkered around ever since for her next big score. Thaiwala is a made-up name that plays on the word chaiwala, which is what tea vendors are called in India.
"We manage Thaiwala from here but production happens off-site. Those facilities are ready if a giant account should pick Thaiwala up," she said. "We can scale as quickly as we need to."
Creating a better kind of Thai tea has been in the back of Howitt's mind since the old days of Oregon Chai. But as Oregon Chai grew, and money from big corporations flowed in, it became difficult to innovate with new flavors or products, she said.
Thai tea doesn't have the same history as chai, which was made in India by Aryuvedic doctors.
"It's been around only maybe 70 years and not to knock it, but it's what Tang is to orange juice," Howitt said.
Thaiwala is a concentrated product sold in cartons. Just add milk or nondairy milk and serve hot or cold. "I like it hot," Howitt said. "It's a warm, marshmallow-y kind of drink."
What's new and different here are Thaiwala's ingredients. It's a totally transparent spin on Thai tea, a product that until now has been spiked with toxic dyes, untraceable "flavorings" and mystery ingredients, Howitt said.
By contrast, Thaiwala's orange color comes from carrots.
"No one in their right mind would create a product with beta-carotene," Howitt said. "It costs a lot to make it, while the stuff with artificial colors costs a fraction of a cent."
Thaiwala's caramel taste comes from burnt sugar, which makes it taste a bit like sweetened condensed milk. It's all vegan, non-GMO and gluten-free.
The last batch of Thaiwala that was brewed was out of Colorado.
"I have to brew it elsewhere, which raises the cost. Someday the batch price will come down," she said. Its retail price is $7.99.
The timing may be right for Thaiwala, which hit Portland grocery stores recently. Zupan's was the first to stock it followed a week later by New Seasons Markets. All 122 Fred Meyer stores began carrying it on Aug. 8, Howitt said.
"It's scary because it's a hard product to steer people to. It's not on their list and it's never been on shelves before."
Portland's Townshend Tea has used Thaiwala in their bubble tea ever since they switched to all-organic, and chef Naomi Pomeroy created a dessert around Thaiwala at her restaurant Beast. Howitt added that it may appear in a local ice cream maker's scoop shop soon, too.
Howitt feels confident Thaiwala will take off because more people are aware of Thai tea than they were when she brought Oregon Chai to market.
"So far, it's way easier than chai because when I'm doing demos the kids know exactly what it is thanks to bubble tea, even if their parents don't," she said.
According to Howitt, the company already is doing big runs for coffee bars and retailers like QFC and grocery stores in northern California.
"You have to have the inventory to go into stores when it's needed but it's super expensive to make. So you have to bring in other people's money, and you never know. I love it, but it's scary," she said.
To grow, she'll need more money and investors, who could be impatient for a return. Ultimately, she'd love to remain small but concedes that she needs "the big guys to bring it down to the price people want."
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