As someone who refers to White Heron as my “office” on an almost daily basis (Guilty!), I have nothing but positive things to say about owner Jonathan Blakeslee and the business he has built from scratch in Portsmouth’s West End neighborhood. With a friendly personality and dedication to his childhood passion, Jonathan has built a community gathering space that serves its namesake teas, as well as delicious, locally-sourced food for breakfast and lunch. I am excited to share Jonathan’s story and the interesting path he has taken to make White Heron a place many of us know and love…
How did White Heron get its start?
Jonathan: I started White Heron in 2005 as an organic tea company. Within six months, I found a Portsmouth location (909 Islington Street), received my organic certification, and launched a starting lineup of 24 teas!
Prior to this, I had been working for a tea company in Portland, Oregon. I enjoyed the tea industry and wanted to continue working in it. When I decided to move back home to the seacoast, and learned no one in the area was working in tea, I decided to start my own company.
I would have liked to have opened a cafe, but I didn't have the resources, so I created a line of wholesale teas to sell through local stores. In the summer of 2006, I started selling at the Portsmouth Farmer's Market, which gave me my first opportunity to directly connect with local tea drinkers.
When did you first become Interested in tea?
As a teenager, I developed a strong interest in Japanese culture and philosophy. Tea was a way for me to connect with that world, although at the time, there wasn't much in the way of leaf tea available locally. I joined the United States Coast Guard in 1987, and was fortunate enough to land in Hokkaido, Japan. My first experience with tea in Japan was likely a "Sencha" green tea bag I had in a hotel, but I eventually purchased a "Kyusu" side-handle teapot and some fresh green tea leaves that I brewed in my room at the Coast Guard Station. Once back in the U.S., I moved to Seattle and lived just down the street from Teahouse Kuan Yin, which became a daily stop for me. From there I was hooked, as Teahouse Kuan Yin offered such a wide selection of loose leaf teas from around the world. A few years later, I moved to Portland, Oregon, where Tao of Tea became my neighborhood tea oasis before I started working there.
Who was the first customer to carry White Heron teas? How many places carry your products now?
Portsmouth Health Food was the first shop to carry White Heron. We currently sell White Heron to over 80 shops, restaurants, and cafes from Boston up to Portland, Maine.
When did you move into your current Islington Street location?
We opened at 601 Islington Street in September of 2013, with a 40-seat cafe and in-house bakery; our own fresh roasted coffee and wholesale tea production all happen in the back.
What is your most popular tea? The most popular food item?
The most popular teas for us tend to be house blends. Current top-sellers include Daybreak Chai, Cranberry Apple Ginger, American Breakfast, and Spicy Licorice Mint. Our most popular food item is a house-baked English Muffin and Egg sandwich that includes options such as avocado, pesto, cheddar, NH North Country bacon or sausage, Fakin Bacon, or baby spinach. We also offer Gluten-Free bread if you prefer to be wheat-free.
What is your favorite part about owning and managing White Heron?
I love our customers and staff. I feel lucky to know so many great people and to see them in our cafe!
You grew up on the seacoast… Why did you return home?
I first lived in North Hampton, NH until the age of 8; then my family moved to South Berwick, ME. But Portsmouth was always a hub, the place to be. I lived in Japan, Seattle, and Portland, Oregon, but always missed home, Portsmouth is where I had to be.
What is something you think most people don’t know about you and/or White Heron?
People may not know that I am also a singer-songwriter, play guitar, and have a band called The Look Backs. It may be surprising to many folks that White Heron is 11 years old as a company, since our cafe has only been here for three years. It took awhile to get here, but it is fun to see how things continue to grow.
Thank you, Jonathan, for sharing your story with us and for making the best tea in town!
*All photos c/o White Heron's Facebook page.
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