Traditional Medicinals still going strong

Research & Development Project Manager Zoe Gardner carefully handles stinging nettle in the Traditional Medicinals herb garden in Sebastopol while explaining the medicinal properties of the herb and how to properly process it to bypass the plant’s defenses.


West County born and raised, herbal “wellness” tea company Traditional Medicinals shows no signs of slowing down or selling out, unwilling to compromise the holistic approach to business that has allowed it to flourish for the past 40 years.

“Who would have thought this little company on Ross Road would become the largest seller of organic tea, and the fifth largest tea company in the United States?” said Blair Kellison, Traditional Medicinals CEO. “It’s pretty amazing.”

In 2010, Traditional Medicinals became a certified B corporation, or Benefit corporation, a distinction created in 2007 that requires organizations to adopt many of the practices the company already held as standard procedures. In order to earn the “B” stamp of approval on their products, corporations must consider employees, community and the environment when making decisions, rather than being beholden solely to profits.

This certification falls in line harmoniously with founders’ original hope to create a company that looked at business “as a social venture,” rather than a means of merely making money.

Looking back at the origins of the company requires delving into the history of West County itself. Founders Drake Sadler and Rosemary Gladstar were part of a back-to-the-land movement in the 1960s and ‘70s that saw many people fleeing the city and setting up roots in the redwoods surrounding the Russian River.

Gladstar, widely considered a godmother of modern herbalism, came from a long line of Armenian healers and herbalists and found herself acting as a sort of country doctor for people in community.

“When Rosemary and I first met in 1970, people were coming to her all the time seeking care,” Sadler said. “Over the course of time, there were so many people coming into our home that eventually we agreed that she needed to put up a shingle somewhere so that people can come there and not into our house.”

In 1974, they set up a small shop in Guerneville, which saw enthusiastic customers and steady traffic.

“It was an immediate success because you had a community that was just ripe for that kind of care. It was packed with people non-stop,” Sadler said.

While the business was flourishing, Gladstar became dissatisfied with the new role she had taken on. More and more people began coming to her for a premixed solution for their ailment, not a lesson in herbal medicine.

“Pretty early on, Rosemary started complaining that she was no longer serving as a practitioner and an herbalist, but rather as a shopkeeper,” Sadler said. “She was not interested in being a businesswoman; she was much more interested in that transmission of knowledge. She wanted to teach.”

Gladstar satisfied this desire by starting two other well-known West County institutions alive and well today. In 1972, Gladstar founded Rosemary’s Garden, an herbal apothecary in Sebastopol, and in 1978, she founded the California School of Herbal Studies in Forestville, which is now one of North America’s oldest centers for herbal education.

Still, Gladstar wanted to find a way to promote the education at Traditional Medicinals and found the opportunity to do so when they began packaging loose-leaf herbal mixtures in coffee bags.

“We saw this bag as an opportunity to communicate about herbalism,” Sadler said. “Inside the coffee bags, we were able to put all kinds of literature and information about herbalism. This way, Rosemary’s passion and the company’s mission to educate about traditional herbal medicine was satisfied by the package itself.”

The new convenient bags came into high demand, and Sadler began driving all over the Bay Area to sell their products in stores that were familiar with Gladstar’s reputation. Today, Traditional Medicinals tea is sold in over 70,000 stores in the U.S. and Canada.

Kellison attributes the continued growth of their business and sales to the developing consciousness of the people in the United States.

“In general, I think people are caring a lot more about what they put in their bodies and they’re caring a lot more about where it comes from,” Kellison said. “We fit into both of those trends really well.”

Research and Development manager Zoe Gardner also thinks there is a growing dissatisfaction with conventional medicines.”

“People are turning to herbs for a variety of reasons,” said Gardner. “Part of it is they want a lower cost alternative to conventional medicine. There’s also an accompanying distrust for conventional medicine and instances when they have ailments where conventional medicine doesn’t do well. For instance, a mild stomachache might have more people reaching for a cup of tea than an over-the-counter drug.”

The employees of Traditional Medicinals are quick to point out that herbal medicine is far from a fad.

“It’s all that we had until a couple hundred years ago and 80 percent of the world’s population still relies on herbs for their primary health care,” Gardner said.

Despite the practice’s history and the growing popularity of natural medicines in the United States, there are still many people who dismiss the declared effects of herbal products.

“There are people who’s minds are starting to open to the idea that herbs can be useful, but they’re still far from really believing it, though they might already be relying on them everyday,” Gardner said. “They might drink coffee every morning and have a reproducible effect from it, but still might not believe that herbs can have an effect on the body.”

One of the many practices that separates Traditional Medicinals from other tea companies is their use of pharmacopoeial grade herbs, which are held to pharmaceutical, not just food grade, standards. For instance, many chamomile teas on the market are only food grade, meaning they can use any part of the plant including the stems and leaves, while pharmacopoeial grade can only use the flowers, where the essential oils and some of the most active compounds are found.

“This ensures our products’ potency is consistent from cup to cup and people can rely on a reproducible effect,” Gardner said.

The desire to achieve the highest medicinal quality of their products also informs how they collect their herbs. While some are grown locally, many are sourced from other countries.

“We have a preference to get herbs from where they originally come from for a couple of reasons,” Gardner said.

Gardner went on to explain that the Senna leaf, the main ingredient in the top selling Smooth Move tea, might be able to be grown in Nevada or arid regions of California, but instead, Traditional Medicinals opts to source the product from India, where it has been traditionally grown.

“We do this in part because we want to get the right chemical profile of the plant, which can change depending where the herbs come from,” Gardner said. “We also want to work in partnership with people who have traditionally stewarded the herbs.”

Traditional Medicinals supports Fair Wild herbs in many countries, a process much like Fair Trade that also looks to prevent over-collecting of wild plants. In addition to maintaining sustainable collection processes, the company also seeks to help create stable work conditions in the communities that traditionally harvest the plants.

“When we invest in these supplier communities — whether we’re building schools or putting in water systems, or delivering health care — we do it, not just because it’s a wonderful social thing to do, but because we know we’re getting more stability in our supply chain,” Sadler said. “We’re going to continue to get that plant from those people for a long period of time the more we invest there, because that profession then becomes an honorable profession and children will want to stay in the community.”

The support of these communities has become a cornerstone of their business practices and the identity of the company.

“It’s all about herbal education and empowerment of indigenous people,” Sadler said. “That’s what we do. We use the tea box and the tea bag as a vehicle to accomplish those two goals. If we do those two things right, then this thing continues to thrive.”

After 40 years of continued prosperity, Sadler has made it clear that he has no intention of selling or moving his company.

“As a CEO, it’s very different to run a business that may be around for the next 100 years than to run a business that might be sold in five years,” Kellison said. “We make very long-term decisions. We spent $3 million on solar panels for the facility. That was not a good financial decision for the short-term, but over the long term, it’s going to be a great decision.”

While some companies might experience a slump after decades of thriving, Kellison says that’s nowhere near the case with Traditional Medicinals.

“Lots of people when they are 40, they might be having a midlife crisis or getting a little complacent,” Kellison said, “but we’re kind of like a teenager right now as a company. It’s really a vibrant place to work.”

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