February 22, 2019

Tea is Steve Schwartz’ medium to change the world

Steve Schwartz sat down to pour organic green pomegranate tea for a guest and himself, doling out the steeped liquid in three intervals between two glasses. This method, he explained, helps ensure each cup is more evenly concentrated than a single pour. But the gesture is symbolic as well. “It’s another level of intention,” he said. 

This degree of awareness largely explains how, since 2004, Schwartz has built the Art of Tea into a leading brand with a social and environmental conscience. His spiritual path, relationship with Jewish traditions, and the time he spent in Israel all inform his approach to being a master tea blender and CEO of a company that sells quality teas to top restaurants in Los Angeles and beyond, including New York City and Las Vegas. 

Despite his athletic build, Schwartz’s humble demeanor is as far from jock-like as imaginable. Drinking calming beverages may help (although he does love coffee as well and is conversant in Los Angeles’ burgeoning bean-oriented caffeine scene), but Schwartz radiates a tranquility that reflects the years he’s spent studying holistic healing. 

Schwartz, 38, grew up in Westlake Village, and after his parents’ divorce, relocated to Tucson, Ariz., with his sister to attend high school. He continued to return to the Los Angeles area, however, for Jewish camp every summer. His mother’s death from cancer was a turning point; after caring for her for 10 months in Santa Monica, right after he’d graduated high school, he put college on hold and decided, at 19, to study alternative healing in Santa Fe, N.M.

“I grew up in a therapeutic background, with this mentality you treat one person at a time,” he said. His father was a physical therapist, his mother a family therapist and his sister became a clinical psychologist. Wellness was an important part of the family culture, yet his mother died relatively young. 

In search of alternatives to Western medicine, Schwartz “found this system that combined Eastern and Western balance and philosophy.” In New Mexico, Schwartz studied at the Ayurvedic Institute with a doctor from India who “became a huge inspiration for me, and who brought in all these amazing teachings.” Throughout the course of a conversation, Schwartz was quick to recount parables from a range of traditions to illustrate his points. 

But when he began seeing patients on his own, the financial component felt counterintuitive. “Knowing how to take care of yourself should be a right,” Schwartz declared. 

Going to Israel was the next crucial step along his journey. Raised Reform, he’d always wanted to visit Israel and give back somehow, so to finally get there, Schwartz worked multiple jobs to save money, and
finally went on the Otzma volunteer program designed for people in their 20s (projectotzma.com).

He wound up in Kiryat Malakhi and Sderot working with Ethiopian children and newly arrived immigrants from the former Soviet Union and Morocco. With few resources and immense challenges, Schwartz taught preventative medicine, stress management and horticulture. “I was planting gardens inside schools and teaching them how to grow [their] own food,” he recalled. 

Schwartz also pressed The Jewish Federation of Phoenix, which helped support social and educational programs in Kiryat Malakhi, to sponsor a community-based theater project involving local high school students. During his year in Israel, he worked on a kibbutz for three months and became a guide for American teens visiting on NFTY (North American Federation of Temple Youth) tours, too (nftyisrael.org).

After a stint in the San Francisco Bay Area, he eventually resettled in L.A., with a renewed focus on studying Judaism. Although he’s not ordained, he found a position at Vista Del Mar Child and Family Services working with a diverse population as the resident “rabbi,” ostensibly a Jewish spiritual adviser. He worked for four years at the Westside social services facility and treatment center, which was originally founded in 1908 as the Jewish Orphans Home of Southern California. 

Meanwhile, ever the healer, Schwartz “wanted to find something I could help people with on a larger scale, so I started looking into tea.” It was during his tenure at Vista Del Mar that he sowed the seeds that would become the Art of Tea.

To expand his technical knowledge, as well as establish relationships with tea producers, Schwartz traveled extensively to visit farms and growers throughout India, China and other far-flung corners of the globe. He’d come back and share the results of his findings, including both traditional and creative uses of whole-leaf teas, with his friends and family. 

Eventually, Wolfgang Puck heard about Schwartz, and the Art of Tea found its way into the likes of Spago, Cut and other high-end restaurants in Puck’s empire. More restaurants, hotels and spas began calling. 

 While a pleasurable consumable good, tea remains a vehicle for Schwartz to advance his own learning and support social and environmental justice, the roots of which are based in his relationship with being Jewish. 

“In my travels, based on my experiences in Israel, I’m able to go to different farms and different communities and sort of see past what’s bright and shiny,” he said. “I do some deep digging, and try to showcase as much transparency as possible in terms of educating our customers and helping to educate [the producers].” The Art of Tea works with Fair Trade USA, but if growers aren’t officially certified — the process can be prohibitively complex and costly —  but their product passes muster, Schwartz still purchases the goods at a top market value (fairtradeusa.org).

Yet he acknowledges the challenges and contradictions of being both an ethical, values-driven enterprise and an elite brand. “It’s sort of a Catch-22, [because] you sort of have to be a foodie to know who we are,” he said. (His Noa line, named for one of his three young daughters, offers organic and fair trade yet more accessibly priced bagged teas in restaurants such as the Cheesecake Factory.) 

Schwartz eschews any formal Jewish denominational affiliation, yet as part of his family’s Shabbat ritual, he and his wife abstain from using phones and other electronic devices for a weekly “digital detox.” “Take God out of the equation, or the penalties of not doing Shabbat,” he explained. “Just carving out that time from Friday night to Saturday night, that has been the most valuable thing possible. In our history, we created this amazing thing.”

His commitment to being fully present in the moment was evident during the course of a two-hour conversation and tour through the Art of Tea’s facilities, located in Monterey Park on a stretch of wide road populated with office parks and light industrial buildings. Rare is the CEO who doesn’t stop to fiddle with his phone or scroll through a loaded email inbox. But Schwartz glanced at his phone when it rang only in case it was his wife calling — the one exception he’ll make to interrupt an interview.   

“While I’m existing on this planet and I can make some sort of impact, and I can do well while doing good, I’ll do the best I possibly can,” he said with a modest smile.