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Published: Monday, 11/5/2001

Coffee foreign to producers of sassafras tea

BY JENNIFER FEEHAN
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Jeff Nordhaus oversees a portion of the 210 gallons of sassafras tea made daily. Jeff Nordhaus oversees a portion of the 210 gallons of sassafras tea made daily.
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COLUMBUS GROVE, Ohio - Don Nordhaus laughed when his father-in-law stopped by one day to say he had bought a tea business.

That was 1962. Now almost 40 years later, the laugh, Mr. Nordhaus said, appears to be on him.

He and his wife, Sandra, bought H&K Products, producer of Pappy's Sassafras Tea, from his late father-in-law in 1989 and later brought their son, Jeff, in to manage the unassuming operation off State Rt. 65 about two miles north of here. With only two other employees and a part-time truck driver, the team brews and bottles about 210 gallons of old-fashioned sassafras tea everyday.

“We sit down and have a cup of tea every morning and joke and rib each other, talk about the major events,” Jeff said. “It's a pretty efficient little operation for the four of us to run.”

Jeff, 39, actually worked as a fishery biologist for the state of Florida for 13 years before returning to the family business in 1999. He has developed a corporate website, which has given direct sales a considerable boost, and worked to launch a second product line.

For the last year, the Nordhauses have been preparing to introduce their own line of green tea - a drink that has gained popularity in recent years because of its role in helping fight cancer and support a healthy heart.

“We've always wanted another product,” Mr. Nordhaus, 61, said. “I'm real excited about this.”

reg photo by don simmons nov 1, 2001  regular sassafrass tea and green tea reg photo by don simmons nov 1, 2001 regular sassafrass tea and green tea
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While his father-in-law, Hermie Kerner, tried over the years to expand his line of teas with varieties like “sassy pekoe” and mint julep, none of them succeeded.

“He got real excited. He got overanxious to put it out,” Mr. Nordhaus recalled about the pekoe tea. It ended up clouding on store shelves and had to be recalled.

The Nordhauses have spent considerable time developing, testing, and perfecting their green tea. Like their sassafras tea concentrate, it is clear and residue-free and has a two-year shelf life.

Their distributors are just beginning to take on the new product, and the Nordhauses expect it to be on grocery and health-food store shelves by January. Because of the price of shelving slots in many grocery chains, they said the green tea will not be available at all stores that carry Pappy's Sassafras Tea such as Kroger.

“I wish I could take the green tea and put it in every store on the shelf next to the sassafras tea but financially that's not going to be feasible right now,” Jeff said. “So we're going to have to build the market.”

He does not anticipate that being a problem because of the global interest in the health benefits of green tea. Pappy's Green Tea, which is sold in concentrate in a 12-ounce bottle, has 105 mg. of antioxidants per 8-ounce cup of tea. Each bottle of concentrate makes 12 cups of tea.

“Sassafras is such a niche market,” Jeff said. “Green tea is known far and wide and will probably eventually surpass our sassafras tea in sales.”

The market for sassafras tea, which is brewed from the root bark of sassafras trees, is an interesting one. Plenty of seniors in places like Florida and Arizona enjoy it because it reminds them of their childhood. Others believe the herbal tea has medicinal purposes helping everything from gout to arthritis.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration prohibits the Nordhauses from touting any such benefits.

“We don't make these claims,” Mr. Nordhaus stressed. “We just say it makes an excellent cup of tea.”

Amid all the talk and aroma of tea - a scent most visitors finally decide smells like root beer - Pappy's Sassafras Tea has chugged along since 1962 as a virtually unknown company among its neighbors in Putnam County.

Kathy Haselman of Ottawa said she first heard about Pappy's when she baby-sat for the children of a man who drove a truck for Pappy's. He occasionally brought her a bottle. Four years ago, she began working there.

“I don't know why it's so unknown,” Mrs. Hasleman said. “Some people say, `Oh, we go by there all the time, but I never tasted it.'”

It is difficult to miss the Pappy's logo and signature slogan, “Refeshing as spring ... all year 'round!” that's painted across the side of their white building.

“My husband doesn't like tea. He always said it tasted like grass and leaves,” Mrs. Haselman recalled. “Now we drink it all the time. He fills a big Gatorade bottle every day and takes it to work.”

Pappy's has no caffeine and just one calorie assuming you don't pour sugar into it the way Jeff Nordhaus does. His father drinks it straight.

A coffeemaker is nowhere in sight at Pappy's.

“That's a cuss word here,” Mr. Nordhaus said. Then, he pointed to a saying on a bulletin board in his office: “We don't have coffee breaks here. We have tea breaks.”



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