• Chad

Interview with Sandra Fongemie of Alaska Herb Tea Company

We made it through Christmas! Here's our next interview with Sandra of Alaska Herb Tea Company. We sat down for some tea at Summit and talked a bit about how she got started and the changes in her business over the years. Enjoy!

Start with introducing yourself and telling me about Alaska Herb Tea Company.

SANDRA FONGEMIE: Okay. My name is Sandra Fongemie, and I'm Alaska Herb Tea Company, and we make Alaskan herbal tea. Was the focus, from the beginning, always on it being specifically herbal tea? SANDRA: Yes, it was. Myself and my husband, we moved to Fairbanks in 1977. I moved from Northern Maine. I had, as a child, harvested a lot of herbs in Northern Maine with my mother, things like dandelions, fiddlehead ferns, and hazelnut. It was something I knew that I used to do. So, I came up to Fairbanks, and I couldn't believe all the roses. The rose was my very first thing with the rose hips, rose petals. rose leaves. So here we are in Fairbanks, and we were wondering, "Okay, what are we going to do here?" I got a job in the library, in the Fairbanks University library and to make a little bit of extra money, I thought, "Well, what about the state fair?" The fair for me and for my company is vital. I thought, "Well, we could sell herbs at the fair." Just basic stuff like roses, rose leaves, blueberry leaves, chamomile, plantain, just herbal things. That was our first introduction to the state fair, the Fairbanks State Fair. We had a booth selling herbs and it used to be in Ziploc bags and you could get a scoop of Alaskan herbs. To this day, I still do the fair. Oh yeah, I'm sure. I imagine having all of that foot traffic is huge. SANDRA: Absolutely. There's a constant market. I mean, people telling you, "This is terrible or this is wonderful." Yeah, so that you know what to change or what to run with. SANDRA: Absolutely. There we were at the State Fair, and a lot of store owners, at that point, would come to me and say, "Well, look, if you package this nicely, we could sell this to tourists." Tourism is of course very vital to my company as well, so we started selling loose tea in Ziploc bags with labels from Kinko's. I know Kinko's doesn't exist anymore but that's how it all started. We were able to sell those to the stores and they, in turn, would sell it to tourists. We did that for a couple of years and then we were able to get enough money together to get our first boxes. It's only printed on two sides, not four and that's how we were able to start that off. The stores wanted a nicer packaging, and they wanted a box, and they wanted teabags. I didn't have tea bags, but that's what they needed and it took us that much longer to get enough money together to do that. So we had these boxes with the tea bags and meanwhile, I'm still doing the fairs and it's just been so invaluable because not only are stores coming to me at the fairs but local people too. "My mother used to get these herbs," or "My grandmother would harvest this herb." I can't say enough about fairs and local shows, Christmas shows. Especially around that time when people are looking for gifts and things like that.

SANDRA: Absolutely. I have two markets. I sell to the tourists, number one, and number two, local people. At Christmastime, they want to bring back something Alaskan. I tend to get a lot of reorders that way also. Yeah, once they've had a chance to try it and all that. SANDRA: Exactly. The other thing that's great about this tea is that it's herbal so you can drink it at midnight, the daytime, whenever. Yeah, whenever the mood strikes. That's awesome. There are so many kinds of tea and then a variety within those kinds. Do you have a favorite tea? SANDRA: My blueberry tea. We started this company in 1980, so I've been doing this 38 years. When we first started in Fairbanks, we would pick blueberry leaves, and my husband had built this dryer and it was just really awesome. It's basically a hole at the top of this box, and the heat rises, and the herbs will dry. The smell from those blueberry leaves is so incredibly fragrant. I don't know if people realize how wonderful leaves are. I used to climb on top of that box just to smell the aroma. So I would say blueberry leaves and rose leaves, those are my two favorites. They're just awesome, but I like the blueberry tea the most. After that, I would say wild rose, especially when they have vitamin C. As far as your harvesting process, can you describe that and go into that a little bit? SANDRA: Well, I used to be the one that harvested everything but things have changed for me now, so now we have other people harvest for us. We depend on people to allow us the use of their private property. Now I actually go on Craigslist and get pickers and target certain areas that way. Places where people have a lot of land. After the picking, we dry it, mostly sun-dry it. So you get a tarp, and then you just rake, and rake, and rake. The other main way is the drying boxes. We've shown people how we used to do it back in Fairbanks. It's just a big box with a window screening, trays of them. You put your herbs on there, and then you put a heater on the bottom, and a hole on the top and the heat will just rise. That's really cool. I know nothing about harvesting and drying herbs so it's really cool to learn about different methods and whatnot. SANDRA: Yeah. I use pretty basic herbs. I'm using roses, blueberries, raspberries. I just keep it really basic, really simple. I've considered doing others before. When I first started up in Fairbanks, people were using devil's club a lot. It's a type of ginseng and an awesome herb but it's just hard to incorporate it. I see. So I was on the website, and I saw the part where you talked about wanting to ensure that you're harvesting in a way that's responsible, that's sustainable. Was that always something, from the very beginning, that was a focus and an important part of what you were doing?

SANDRA: Oh, very much so. It's so important. Otherwise, you end up depleting your stock and I don't want to do that. So that was always a very important part. That's what makes these herbs truly organic. It's just wild growth on people's private property. That makes sense. Harvesting wild herbs in that way feels very Alaskan too. SANDRA: Oh yeah, very Alaskan. That's also one of the things that makes this product easy for tourists because it won't break in your suitcase, it's Alaskan, it's inexpensive. Good for shipping. SANDRA: Yeah. Good for shipping, lightweight, absolutely. That pretty much all fell together. Very cool. When you're talking about tea with people, is there something that you find always comes up that a lot of people aren't really aware of? SANDRA: Well, most people, they know about the roses, the vitamin C. What usually comes up the most is the benefits of drinking herbal tea, and then how important it is to drink something that's within your area. If it grows here and you're living here, that's pretty important. For example, we do honey as well, fireweed honey, and that ties in with that as well.

Yeah, I saw some of the pictures on your Facebook. SANDRA: Yes, fireweed honey. I would just love to have enough to wholesale, but I can't. I only sell it at the fairs because I can't manage it. As you know, fireweed only blooms for a very short period. You've got to somehow get a year's worth of honey in there. Whatever I have pretty much sells during the fair. Once again, I tell people how important it is for allergies because the bees are running around all over where you live, and they're getting all of the pollen from the flowers. Eating that honey makes a huge impact when it comes to that. If you have allergies, it's just so helpful because the bees have already done all the work for you. *laughs* Yeah. You get to just try something that tastes good. *laughs* If you have any leftover after the fair, do you sell them on your website? SANDRA: Yes. I pretty much always have at least a little bit leftover and those will gradually sell through my website until I run out. Got you. I was just curious if someone decided that they wanted some fireweed honey to go with their tea, if they could order that from you. SANDRA: Oh, absolutely. They can order online if I have it.

If not, they just have to try again next year. SANDRA: Yep. Give me a call in August. So when you're not doing the business, what do you do with your free time? SANDRA: Well, I'm a big gym person. I go to the gym three days a week and then three days a week, I am at The Dome, I walk at The Dome. I wish I could run, but those days are over. It was a real loss for me when it collapsed, but it's back up, and I go there every week. Before my MS kicked in, I was a big painter. I loved painting Native people, and I would go to the villages and paint the elders. Things are different now though, and I can't do that anymore. I'm really sorry to hear that. You talking about painting reminded me of something. I was reading on your website, and it mentioned that the art for the Holiday Spice Tea that's in our box is your art. Was that art always a part of it or did you add that later? SANDRA: When I came to Fairbanks, I thought I would be an artist. I had gone to school for painting. I was going to be a painter, and then things changed. Such is life it seems.

SANDRA: Indeed. A lot of the paintings that are on my box now, I had done in my youth. That's changed now. Fortunately, my partner who is also a financial whiz and a computer whiz, he does the designs for the boxes and all of that. It's just amazing to me when he does that. He already had the booth at the fair that we now use all mapped out in different perspectives. What the booth looks like when there are five people in it versus when there are two people in it. It's just awesome. His computer expertise has been invaluable. That's awesome. As far as the Bear Box, what was it about the Bear Box that made you want to be part of it? SANDRA: Well, you guys had reached out to me. I looked up more information about you and saw that you were fairly new. As far as what you're doing though, I think it's awesome. I love that you're working with and helping Alaskan businesses. I was looking at other businesses that you've been working with, like Kobuk Coffee Company. They've been customers of mine for years. They were one of my first customers back in the 1980s. It all ties together. It's a very tight-knit community. SANDRA: Absolutely. Yes, we are. In fact, that was one of the reasons we moved from Fairbanks to Anchorage. I lived in Fairbanks for about 15 years before we moved. The move was financial because when it came to ordering everything that we needed, and then having to ship from Anchorage to Fairbanks, it just got to be too difficult. Moving to Anchorage was definitely a big change for me and for the company. It's funny because when I first moved, I just didn't like it. It was such a huge city to me. But now, I couldn't live anywhere else. Sometimes certain places just feel like home! So, any final thoughts, any wisdom to share? SANDRA: I just want to say that I love people. I'll have people tell me. "I really like your raspberry tea. I like your blueberry tea." It just feels so real. It makes me feel good. I wouldn't trade it for anything. Yeah, for sure. Doing what you do, it sounds like a great way to meet people and build those connections and everything. It's what makes it worth it in the long run, I feel like. SANDRA: It really does. It really, really does. Definitely. Well, I think, that's all I have. Thank you so much, Sandra, for taking the time out of your day to come down here and have some tea with me. I'm really excited to share that Midtown box with everyone. SANDRA: And thank you. I just think it's really nice, what you all are doing. Any help that we Alaskans, all Alaskan companies, get is awesome. It's just really awesome. It's a nice step that you're taking. Looking at everyone that you have so far, like Octopus Ink, Kobuk Coffee. It's really great. Thank you. We appreciate it. We're glad that you're part of it. SANDRA: Yes. It's very much appreciated for us, thank you.

I just want to thank Sandra for taking the time out for this interview. You can find more of her tea and other products on her website and if you have time, make sure and check out her Facebook too.