Entrepreneurship, Turmeric And Power Herbs With Big Heart Tea Co. In St. Louis
How do you heal a broken world?
For many Americans, that question has become dire and daunting, especially in the tumultuous months since the presidential election. But for Lisa Gorvo of Big Heart Tea Co. in St. Louis, Missouri, it has quietly become a quest.
As the artisan and owner behind Big Heart Tea, Lisa has been on a self-described “covert mission to infiltrate your everyday food and drink experience with healing herbs.” But behind that simple goal is a radical and all-encompassing commitment to care, to ethics, and to contemplating every aspect of how our actions can help create a better world—even if we’re just sitting down with our morning steep.
I spoke with Lisa over a Cup of Sunshine about turmeric, the slow evolution of labor practices in the tea industry, and how Hillary Clinton catalyzed an unexpected inspiration for her business’s next chapter.
Tell me about your life before you became a tea maker.
It was so different! For one, I was living in Seattle, working for a homeless youth-services nonprofit. I was burnt out and really tired of the rain. So I left, sold my 401k, and I traveled. I ended up in Sedona, Arizona, where I studied under an Ayurvedic chef in addition to getting my yoga teacher certification, which I don’t use [laughs]. The parts of Ayurvedic medicine that dealt with food as medicine really spoke to me, and I began to rethink how I can make a positive contribution to society without necessarily burning myself out.
What led you to St. Louis, and what brought you to making that first tisane (herbal tea) here?
Mostly family. I’m from Kansas originally, and my sister lives in St. Louis, so I was actually just coming through visiting after I left Sedona. I wasn’t planning on staying, but I didn’t have an end date for when I was leaving. So, like a lot of people, I kind of got sucked in. St. Louis is such a romantic city. I loved the Mississippi river, and the red brick was so mystical to me, coming from the northwest where everything is craftsman-style and green.
And then, of course, it’s so cheap to live in St. Louis. I remember when I got my first apartment. I was like, this is a mansion! Look at my mansion! And the rent was half of what I’d ever paid before. So, I was really inspired to take advantage of the opportunity to live in a community with a low cost of living and make things. And then, happily, I learned that St. Louis people love local. That was such an amazing thing, to be embraced by a community that didn’t know me, where I wasn’t from.
A couple of years later, I met my husband and had a baby. So life really changed.
No matter where you’ve been, it seems like one constant has been your relationship with this herb, turmeric, which doesn’t grow in most of the U.S.
It actually can grow in the Midwest, but it can’t flourish in the Midwest. So the act of cultivating it for commercial purposes would be quite cost-prohibitive. It grows in Hawaii, Indonesia, Southern India— tropical places like that. We get ours from Hawaii, in one big shipment once a year, and when I open the box, it just fills my heart with love.
What do you like about turmeric?
It’s amazing! There are so many studies out there about the medical benefits of turmeric, I could talk about them all day. It’s anti-inflammatory, which has been proven to help reduce depression. It’s antibacterial, antimicrobial and helps your immune system. It’s been clinically proven to help end Type 2 diabetes. It’s known as an anti-cancer supplement. It’s great for improving memory. It’s been linked to reducing the effects of Alzheimer’s. I have so much turmeric that I’ve just absorbed with my skin from working with it and drinking it, and I heal really fast. It’s really powerful, and it’s something everyone has in their spice cabinet.
And then just sensually, turmeric has a really versatile flavor. A lot of people associate turmeric with curry; they think of it as an Indian spice with a savory application. But I actually think it has quite a sweet floral palette, and it’s just comforting. It’s like if you come home and your mom’s baking bread. That’s the effect that turmeric has on me.
So it comes back to these ideas of healing and care that are so important to you. Does your family drink a lot of Big Heart teas?
Definitely. My daughter Astrid is two, and she loves to have tea. It’s mostly milk, but we do put a bit of warm tea in it. She definitely knows that her mom goes to work and makes tea. And she loves turmeric. She eats the whole rhizome raw. One day she just picked it up and started eating it like it was a carrot! I grow tulsi, which is another one of the primary herbs in our tea blend, in my own garden, and she’s been eating the leaves off the plant since she was a newborn. I can’t even do that! It must be in her DNA.
It also seems like you take a lot of care with the production of your teas, all the way to selecting your suppliers. You don’t hear much about supply-chain ethics in the tea industry.
That’s one really interesting thing about herbs. With coffee, consumers usually know the story about where the coffee comes from, but tea is just starting to get there. I think tea is probably 10 or 15 years behind where coffee is now. But consumers are starting to demand more transparency—not just about the region and the agriculture practices, but also the trade practices. Who’s growing the tea, who’s farming the tea and producing the tea, and are they being treated fairly?
We found a really amazing importer two years ago who tells that story for us. They’re in Nepal right now, where it’s harvest season. They go out annually to inspect the farms and rate their growing and trade practices, and then they connect us through Google Chat so we can actually meet them and talk to them. We have this new tea that I’m in love with. It’s called Forever Spring, and it’s grown by the Jen Tea family in Nantou, Taiwan. Jen Tea is a group of women tea farmers who have been making these great, quality oolongs for four generations. It’s pretty important to me to also help support other women in business, especially in tea, which is an industry that’s so male-dominated.
So even though you’re not working for a nonprofit anymore, you’re finding ways to empower artisans at a systems level, and healing individual people with turmeric.
It’s definitely important to me. For instance, I don’t think most people know that most of the iced teas you can buy commercially are, really, slave-labor teas. When you buy Louisiana or Lipton, what’s not included in those low prices are fair-labor practices. That’s one of the things I’ve been working hard on in the last few months with our suppliers—letting them know that when they buy from us, they’re not just buying a high-quality, craft product—they’re supporting ethical business practices, too. And it still gives you a decent margin, and a better product. I’m really proud of our iced tea; it’s bright, citrus-y, nostalgic, and has a little bit of complexity. It’s a single-origin tea made by a leading natural farmer in Malawi.
You’re recently re-branded the company from Retrailer Tea—which was a call-back to the days you actually sold tea out of a trailer—to Big Heart Tea. Tell me about that pivot.
So, last summer and fall, I was actually considering closing the business. I don’t have a business background, and as we were growing, I felt like I was stepping more away from my role as a maker and having to focus more on the selling and management end of things, and I made some big, expensive mistakes. Like, I let our website domain registration lapse, and it was picked up by a porn company in Russia. That was just one of many stupid mistakes I made! [Laughs] And then I was starting to wonder, “Is this the life I want to live, doing the business side of things? Is this who I am?” So I started to think, “I need to either shut it down, or it needs to go through some kind of a re-birth.”
And then Trump got elected. The day after election day, I felt awful. I was just ugly-crying everywhere I went. And then I was listening to Hillary Clinton’s concession speech, and she said that she had a “big heart” for all of her supporters. And I remember later, I was standing in the shower, and I thought back to why I started Retrailer: to help people experience self-love, and to heal. I started thinking, “How can I make an impact beyond the basics of being a more ardent citizen?” Re-contextualizing it like that really refreshed my energy for the company, too.
You have also made some changes in your business strategy, too. You’re shipping to accounts across the country now, and you’ve made some new products.
Really, at the core of it, the company was started as a way to get turmeric into people’s hands. We have this new product called Sunshine Dust which is actually a powdered blend of turmeric, ginger, peppercorn and lemon grass. Once I finalized that recipe, we started sending out samples all over the country, and it’s been so cool, seeing how people incorporate it into so many things beyond tea. Clementines’ is making an ice cream out of it, Niche is making a pastry, and chefs are finding all kinds of savory applications, like golden rice and overnight oats for breakfast. Now, with this new product, we have accounts in Los Angeles, Seattle and Illinois. It’s amazing. I was just talking to my husband about this—he just reminded me that my whole goal, at the beginning, was to get more turmeric in people’s hands. Now it’s getting there.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Photography by Sherrie Castellano