Bassir Sobhani: crafting unique teas and chocolate

Oct 21, 2016

A variety of products from Bassir’s store: Tea Range

Two distinctly Nova Scotian tea blends can trace their origins to the Iranian Revolution of 1978–79.

When the post-revolutionary government intensified its persecution of members of the Baha’i faith – which originated in Iran – it left some Iranian citizens adrift beyond their country’s borders.

One of these was Bassir Sobhani, who was working in Sri Lanka at the time of the revolution. When he needed to renew his passport, the Iranian Embassy refused him, saying he must return to Iran. Knowing the danger he would face back home, he turned to the United Nations in Sri Lanka and told them his story.

“They introduced us to three countries that had opened their doors to the Iranian Baha’i who were stranded outside of Iran after the revolution. One was Australia, one was the United States, and the other was Canada. I didn’t know anything about any of them,” he says with a laugh. “I chose Canada, and I’m glad.”

Bassir arrived in Nova Scotia in 1984, and his first job was at the Bean Sprout natural food store on Barrington Street in Halifax. When the owner later decided to sell the business in 1986, Bassir and his family bought it. “We had great success with the Halifax store which had been relocated to Maritime Centre,” he says. “Then we opened a second location on Young Street and Agricola, and a third one at Bedford Sunnyside Mall.”

In 2006, after 20 years as a retailer, Bassir decided it was time for a change, and he left the business. The family consolidated it into a single store, which his brothers took over.

Tea and chocolate

Although Bassir had intended to retire, a new kind of business beckoned. “I used to bring tea from Sri Lanka, then blend it, pack it and sort it in our three stores,” he says. “I knew the whole business of tea, because I’d lived in Sri Lanka. I had good contacts, and I knew the tea plantation, the plantation owner, the tea company, the tea factory – everything.”

He set up BAKU Enterprises Ltd. in 2007 and launched Tea Range, a tea and chocolate wholesaler and distributor based in Bedford. He sells Stella organic, fair-trade Swiss chocolate and his own blends of teas including a new label, Nova Tea. The teas are high-quality blends that use real herbs, spices and fruits, with no artificial flavours.

Bassir has also created two special blends that use Nova Scotia blueberries and cranberries. “I don’t use flavours – I use real berries,” he says. “That’s why it took me a long time to come up with a nice blend. Having been the owner of a natural food store for over 20 years, I know how important it is for some people to have real ingredients and benefit from the nutritional value of the product.”

Starting to export

Bassir knew he’d need to expand his markets beyond Nova Scotia to succeed. Having been in business for so long, he understood the value of a strong network. “I had contacts and had developed friendships with many people,” he says.

Since Tea Range is a one-man operation, personal relationships are especially important. “I’m the janitor, the CEO, the processor, the developer, everything,” Bassir says cheerfully.

A brother in Tucson, Arizona, helped build the webpage, and a friend in Phoenix gave his business its exporting start. Another friend was serving Bassir’s teas to customers, who then asked how to buy them. “And then my friend says, ‘It looks like there’s an opportunity here. Do you want to sell some? I’ll try to market it for you.’ And we did that, and he did a good job,” Bassir says.

The same friend distributed samples, and a connection in California who owns a restaurant and teahouse shared the samples with his customers, who loved them. “So then he contacted me directly, and we started supplying him,” Bassir says. The customer is now selling Bassir’s tea blends under his own private label.

Bassir with Pete Luckett at a taste testing at Pete’s Frootique’s Bedford location

Introduction to NSBI

“Now that I knew how it worked, my goal was to market blueberry tea and cranberry tea out of Nova Scotia as an export item,” Bassir says. He spoke with his MLA, who introduced him to Nova Scotia Business Inc. and an upcoming trade mission, the Summer Fancy Food Show in New York in June 2016.

“I learned a lot about how the American market works from that trip,” he says. “As a result, I started redesigning the label and have decided to concentrate on the Canadian market first and then go to the USA.”

Bassir says he can fill orders of any size for individual private-label customers or for Tea Range and Nova Tea brands. The structure is in place to handle large orders of container loads, however, he wants to be sure he’s ready before taking major steps into the US market. Meanwhile, he has customers in New Brunswick and is actively pursuing business in the rest of Atlantic Canada and beyond. At the same time, he has established relationships with two online businesses to sell his products and is seeking others.

Quality chocolate

Bassir holds exclusive rights to import and distribute Stella chocolate in eastern Canada, while a friend of his sells it in the west. “It is the best and highest quality dark chocolate I have ever tasted,” he says.

Now he’s in the process of making his own chocolate. “It’s a unique blend,” he says, and he confirms that it will have a Nova Scotia connection.

Working with NSBI

Bassir will soon be accessing NSBI’s Export Growth Program funding, with which he can expand his marketing plans and attend exporting events. NSBI offers other services for new exporters, including business advice, education and information sessions, FITTskills international business training, and trade missions.

He is confident in the quality of his teas and chocolate, and he’s aiming high. “My hope,” he says, “is to see them at all the grocery stores and natural food stores across Canada.”

Export Development Education

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