If you add a little juice to tea, what you end up with tastes more like juice than tea, but has a fraction of the sugar, according to Melinda Hicks, a former marketing executive based in Atlanta, GA, who came up with the Little Me Tea brand after trying in vain to find something less sugary than soda, flavored milk or 100% juice to give her daughter and her friends.
Speaking to FoodNavigator-USA as part of our new series of interviews with food and beverage entrepreneurs,Hicks said: “The 100% juices were loaded with sugar. Flavored waters lacked nutrition. And everything had some added sugar. There was just way too much sugar.
“I was making herbal teas and added some juice and my daughter loved it and her friends loved it, and I thought there is a glaring gap in the market here. The flavor is clean and light and crisp.”
A glaring gap in the market
She added: “I started doing some research and was really surprised to see that no one was doing this, so I contacted a beverage developer and everything started from there.”
Her first two products, Julia's Tropical Tea and Zane's Grape Tea, feature a blend of four organic teas (White Tea, Rooibos Tea, Hibiscus flowers and Chamomile) and contain 6g of naturally occurring sugar (from juice) per 6.75 ounce juice box. A third flavor will hit stores next year.
They are organic, caffeine-free and contain no added sugar (making them very Mom-friendly), but they are designed to appeal to kids, said Hicks, who chose to put children (including her own daughter Julia) - instead of cartoon characters or fruit - on her product labels.
“I walked down the juice aisle and through what will give me an emotional connection? A cartoon character or a child’s face?”
In the end people want convenience
So armed with some product samples and her sales pitch, she started knocking on doors.
And some pretty influential ones have just opened, said Hicks, who is set to take the Little Me Tea brand nationwide in the coming weeks as new distribution partnerships take shape.
But success didn’t come overnight, said Hicks, who had originally envisioned Little Me Tea would work best in a 32oz format when she launched her first products in 2011, but soon learned that busy Moms want something they can just throw in their child’s lunchbox, and has now ditched the big packs and is focusing on the 6.75oz juice box format instead.
“In the end people want convenience.”
A steep learning curve
Recent deals include partnerships with key distributors to the natural channel including Nature’s Best, which has taken the products to stores across the Southwest and Western US in recent weeks; KeHe, which is distributing Little Me Tea to retailers in the Northeast, Midwest, Southeast and Southwest; and Unique Foods Marketing, which has placed Hicks’ products in Whole Foods’ South region (Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama).
The retail price is at the higher end of the organic juice box market, but not too high to put off target customers, said Hicks, who admits she has been on a steep learning curve since setting up her firm Big Time Tea Company.
“I would tell people to go in with their eyes wide wide open. Learn as much as you can before you go into production. How much do your ingredients cost, how widely available are they? Will they still be widely available in three years’ time?”
Make your margins right off the bat and don’t assume that you’ll get volume discounts later
One mistake she didn’t make was pricing the product so low that she wouldn’t be able to make any money until she achieved volume discounts at some unspecified time in the future, said Hicks.
“Everybody was cautioning us. Make sure you can make money from your first production run. Make your margins right off the bat and don’t assume that you’ll get volume discounts later.
“You also need to have enough money budgeted to support your brand and get it into the distributor networks you’re targeting, and that means attending the trade shows and working with retailers.”