On Jan. 11, 1999, fire destroyed the Costa Rican tea company Manza Té in Tirrases de Curridabat, a rural area east of San José. Firefighters quickly arrived on the scene only to find that the water had been cut off that day.
José Manuel Araya, founder and owner of Manza Té, sat down on the side of the road to watch his factory burn to the ground. Araya had just bought the building with money he’d been saving for 30 years.
“It was one of those situations where you watch a tragedy happen and you are unable to prevent it. All I could feel was despair as I watched my past and my hope for the future burn right in front of me,” Araya said.
When the factory was destroyed, Manza Té had already been in business for 28 years and was steadily growing. The fire was the most difficult challenge the family-run business would ever face.
Manza Té, which today can be found in most Costa Rican supermarkets, began in a small warehouse in San Antonio de Desamparados, a southern suburb of San José, where Araya and his family lived. Like many Costa Ricans in the 1970s, Araya dreamed of starting his own business. When his friend and neighbor Gilberto Bermúdez decided to sell his small tea company, Araya, a cement company employee, jumped at the opportunity.
In the early years, Manza Té produced chamomile tea. The company takes its name from manzanilla, the Spanish word for chamomile, which is strongly linked to Costa Rica’s heritage. Costa Rican grandmothers will tell you the chamomile plant has many health benefits, including helping with digestion. The blue box of Manza Té’s chamomile tea became a familiar sight in Costa Rican kitchens.
Chamomile led the way to an array of new products. Today, the company sells more than 28 assortments of tea under the same brand, with five collections: Herbal Mixes, Herbal, Specialty, Classic, and Fruit and Aromatic Teas.
The company’s Herbal Mix collection is its most popular, with 12 herb combinations that have natural health benefits: Tranqui Té has properties that help reduce stress; Dige Té helps with digestion; Coles Té fights cholesterol; and Dormo Té puts an end to sleepless nights.
“For us it is vital to be able to back up with scientific information all the health properties that our herbal mixes have to offer,” said Wendy Araya, José Manuel Araya’s daughter and the company’s general manager. “We have a phytotherapist who constantly conducts research to put together herbal teas that are good for the body.”
Manza Té produces more than 90 million tea bags per year, and although they are mostly sold in Costa Rica, the company exports 20 percent of total production to other Central American countries, as well as Panama and the Dominican Republic. The company uses at least 100 tons of raw materials, 85 percent of which are herbs and dry fruits produced here in Costa Rica, to make its teas.
“In Costa Rica drinking tea is not something that comes easily with our culture. We are a country of coffee drinkers,” said José Manuel Araya, who drinks coffee in the mornings. “But, throughout the years, we have seen an increasing number of people who would rather drink tea.”
Manza Té’s line of specialty teas, such as red and green tea, aim to satisfy a growing trend of customer preference in the Costa Rican market. The leaf of the Camellia sinensis, used to make Chinese-style teas, is imported from Argentina. According to the Araya family, the increase in consumption of Chinese blends follows a 10-year trend in Costa Rica focused on healthier living.
Manza Té survived that 1999 fire and is one of Costa Rica’s most successful homegrown companies, last year acquiring two new product brands, La Abejita honey and La Selva granola and oatmeal.
The company has 120 employees and creates 100 indirect jobs in plant farming and beekeeping. Social and environmental responsibility is a key element to Manza Té’s business model, and the company offers workshops on better business practices at farms that grow Manza Té’s raw materials.
“This company is already on wheels,” José Manuel Araya said. “But my only hope is that future generations of my family will take over and help make it the best it can possibly be.”