I stopped by the PANATEA office to meet with Dave Mandelbaum to conduct this interview. Dave and his wife, Jess, started their company, Panatea, in 2014 after discovering the powers of matcha while looking for an alternative to coffee. Check out their story below!
How did you find the source for your matcha? Jess and I travelled to Japan and met with our tea masters who have been studying tea for 25+ years. We went to the matcha farms to find the most exquisite matcha for the modern day American consumer. Our goal from day one was to make matcha obtainable. Matcha is an ancient superfood that's been around Japan since the 12th century. No one had figured out how to translate this product to the American consumer, and we wanted to make it approachable. We found a farm that we liked working with and created our own proprietary blend of ceremonial grade matcha with them and started our business in 2014 as an online direct to consumer business. This led into a food service business. We started distributing matcha to cafes, restaurants, coffee & juice shops. We sell our products at curated retail locations such as, MoMA, Opening Ceremony, STORY, Dover Street Market.
What is a matcha farm like? Usually steeped in tradition and family run. It's been run for hundreds of years. Matcha is farmed differently than traditional tea. The harvest is in May. A couple weeks before the harvest, the leaves are shaded and only the youngest leaves are hand plucked. They are steamed, dried and granite ground to a fine powder, which is what you know of matcha. Matcha is expensive because this process is so labor intensive.
How long has matcha been around? I can't believe it only recently became a trend in the US! In Japan it's more of an ingredient. People aren't having a bowl of matcha in the morning. Their thought process behind matcha is ceremonial, and something that's meant for a Japanese tea ceremony. If you go to any ice cream or sweets store, they are incorporating matcha as a flavor into food products rather than offering a matcha beverage.
What does a Japanese tea ceremony look like? Matcha came over with Zen Buddhism around the 12th century, so it has a spiritual element to it. It's a time to congregate and have tea. Everyone is on the same level. When you walk in, you walk under an underpass, so everyone is bending down as a level of respect. Whether you are a peasant or nobility, you are on the same level walking in. It's one time, one moment: Ichi-go ichi-e. This means: the importance of this moment, which cannot be replicated again. You have this amazing tea, you drink it, you look at your ceramic bowl, which is a big process of it, and take it all in.
What is the difference between matcha & coffee? What makes matcha a superfood? With matcha you get 4-6 hours of sustained energy. With coffee you get a quick cortisol release and then crash, which you don't get with matcha. A lot of this has to do with the amino acid, L-theanine, which provides the calm alertness that you don't get with coffee. This is how we got into it in the first place because I was getting jittery and crashing from coffee, and Jess had a weak stomach, and therefore, we were seeking out quality matcha.
Matcha can be broken down into 3 health benefits:
- It enhances antioxidant activity in the body. It has 14x the amount of antioxidants as blueberries and 53x that of spinach
- It supports your metabolism with EGCG (or epigallocatechin gallate)
- It provides 4-6 hours of clean, green, calm energy so there are no jitters or crash
Did you always want to start a company? Yes, for as long as I can remember. There are a lot of entrepreneurs in my family, and that's what I wanted to do. I started out in Entertainment negotiating celebrity endorsement deals for corporations, working with strategy. When we discovered and fell in love with matcha, it felt like the next wave, and that it was the right time.
How did you discover matcha? We found it in a random tea store in NY. We tried it, and definitely made it the wrong way (with a fork). We didn't know what we were doing, but I remember it changing my energy levels, and I wasn't getting the same caffeine effect that I was with coffee. We began brainstorming how we could learn more about this: where does this come from, why is it good for me, why does it make me feel good? I went to a tea ceremony in New York, and that was when I fell in love with the ceremonial aspect of it.
How long were you working two jobs before you decided to pursue Panatea full time? How did you know it was the right moment? Probably 8 to 10 months. Jess left her job first and then I left after. For me, I wanted to create something as opposed to brokering. I got a call while I was walking with Jess on a Friday from my boss at 6pm about a booking that had to be done by Monday. I went in on Monday and gave my resignation. I was looking for that moment, and I got it.
How did you choose the name, logo and packaging? The name is a play on Panacea, a remedy, cure-all elixir. We changed the C for a T. So it's the tea that cures all, Panatea. The logo is supposed to be a symbol of whisking matcha in the M & W motion. From a packaging stand point, we always wanted to have a node to Japanese art/architecture which is pretty minimal, clean, sleek & modern, so we want to have a similar aesthetic.
What does a week look like for the two of you? A week is a rollercoaster. I handle most of marketing, sales and product innovation. Jess handles day-to-day operations of the business. So many things are going on within those two verticals.
How have partnerships with cafes/restaurants/juiceries come about? It started off as a platform to educate people because we want more people to try matcha. Once the feedback turned out to be so positive, we started ramping up that side of the business. It became a great stepping stone and education platform for people. This is especially so because we don't have a brick and mortar location where customers can come try matcha, have their first experience, and once they liked it come back to the website. The partners that we've chosen have been really top class partners who value quality products. For us it's not just about bringing matcha to the US, but it's more about bringing quality matcha.
How often do you travel, and what do you do while you're there? We did the bulk of our personal travel before we started the business, and now it's hard to get away. We recently went to the west coast for our 4 year wedding anniversary. We also used the trip to check out the tea culture in CA. Health & wellness is a huge focus on the west coast, so there is a lot of opportunity out there. We went to Japan in the beginning to lock down everything, and we try to go every year or so. When we're there, we will visit the farms and go sight seeing, so we mix personal and business. Lot of delicious eating is also involved.
What is the future of Panatea? We are working on some really exciting product innovation right now with the goal of making matcha more accessible. This has been our mission from day one.
How did you learn to start & grow a company? What skills are necessary? We learned through trial and error, no one really teaches you. With general entrepreneurship you either have it or you don't and it lives inside of you. It's probably the hardest thing I've ever done in my entire life. You live on a rollercoaster everyday. You have to take the ups and the downs & you've got to learn to take them in stride. Also, surrounding yourself with as many mentors as possible is important. Whether it's advisors or other people in the industry who've been there and done that before. For us, this includes the food industry, retail and online. At the end of the day you have to have a passion for what you're doing and have to have really thick skin. You're told no more than you're told yes, especially when you're trying to get a company off the ground.
What advice would you give someone interested in starting their own company? It's not easy. If it was easy, everyone would do it. It gives you tremendous respect for those that have come before you.
Any new products on the pipeline? We just launched our instant matcha which has been doing really well for us. It has opened up a male demographic. The idea came from customer feedback, asking for something more on the go. Holiday will be about getting that product out to people- it's a great stocking stuffer.
What is your approach to customer service? Building a community is all about having a good rapport with your customers. We want to try to add personal touches when we can to whatever we are doing. It's not that you just receive your matcha, you may get it with a card from us or receive directions. As we grow our company, that dialogue with customers will get better and better & we will be able to do more and more things like that.