Two Rufus King grads created Rishi Tea 17 years ago. Three moves and a lot of growth later, the company built a 50,000 square foot building with plenty of extra room in Milwaukee's Menomonee Valley.
Jeffrey Champeau landed at Rishi, strangely enough, thanks to hockey back in his home state of Minnesota. "When I was going into middle school, a bunch of hockey buddies and I decided to take Chinese language – just kind of on a whim,” he explains.
Champeau fell in love with Chinese culture – particularly its food and drink. “In college I actually spent six months studying in the Yunnan Province of China – it’s in the southwest," he says. "It’s actually the birthplace of the tea plant. So I spent six months studying teas ancient past in the mountains of Yunnan.”
Soon after, Champeau happened to meet the founder of Rishi at a World Tea Expo in Las Vegas, “ we just got to talking about tea and our travels and about three months later I was out in Milwaukee working for him.” Champeau is now a tea buyer and brand strategist.
He says the word Rishi holds deep significance among the company’s 45 employees.“Rishi is actually an ancient Sanskrit word," he says. "It can be loosely translated to mean teacher or seeker – the idea of this kind of this unending quest. “
Project manager Heather Torrey chimes in, “our owners actually refer to the people who work here – they will call us my fellow Rishis. We all have something to share and collaborate, and contribution to the company.”
Torrey oversaw the construction of this new building.
Its high ceilings tower over an open work space - no private offices here. But rooms with doors do line the east wall.
One is the library, explains Torrey, “and then this one is the studio and it’s going to be very Zen, with low chairs, it’s meant to be very comfortable – a place where if people need to do a little meditation in the morning, they are invited to do so there; and then we have a larger conference room down that way as well….”
Torrey adds, “we never had a conference room.”
Another first for Rishi is its cafeteria. “We’re calling it the employee lounge. We wanted communal seating," she says. "There will be – this area up here will be our tea bar – so we’re running that entire length of the wall will be our loose leaf and tea bags. We’re big believers in having our employees drink the product, so everybody’s invited to participate in cups of tea throughout the day.”
Rishi's production area occupies the west half of the complex.
Jeffrey Champeau says each area has its own heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems to keep tea ingredients fresh and uncompromised by other odors. "You can hear the HVAC system is working in the herb warehouse. This is actually just herbs and spices; we have a separate warehouse for tea leaves,” he says.
We look in - through a window – at tea being packaged. The workers look more like a surgical team.
“There’s lots of room for growth in this room, but what I think you realize it’s all done by hand – bagged and weighed meticulously,” Heather Torrey explains.
Rishi’s R&D expert Michael Aschenbrener has his own space. He is unpacking porcelain white cups, his instruments for creating winning blends.
The Milwaukee native says he got his feet wet at a tea shop on Brady Street, before joining Rishi 12 years ago.
He calls his job part creative; part scientific, and “it’s a little secret, but it’s all about our balance with different herbs and spices together. We all do a lot of research internationally – like different spice mixes from Mexico – maybe cinnamon and black pepper and some chilis. A lot of the background is culinary.”
Rishi’s secret something seems to be paying off. Company sales have topped $10 million and have been growing an average rate of 10% per year; this last year jumping by 20%, with accounts now throughout the U.S. and in 10 other countries.
Aschenbrener always washed his tea ware by hand, now at Rishi’s new home he has a state-of-the-art dishwasher.
A staircase leads to a room, with one large window facing north. The walls are painted black - all very deliberate, according to Jeffrey Champeau. “This is the place where Joshua and I and the other tea buyers will conduct our pure tea quality control. There will be a black floor when it’s complete. It’s very common in Japan to have black tasting rooms. It really kind of focuses your eye and your attention – sort of like a sensory deprivation area - and it really focuses your attention on the colors of the infusions in the tea leaves,” he says.
Aside for a deep-seeded dedication to quality and taste, the company goal, is for its product to be completely organic. Rishi reports it’s 95 percent of the way there.
We head back downstairs, where workers are wandering in – checking out the desks. Each has its own “tea station” and welcoming bonsai tree.