The brainchild of 26-year old entrepreneur Josh Caplan - who has funded his business from the profits of a real estate deal he struck in Phoenix at the tender age of 22 - Tea of the People is about health, exquisite tea and social activism.
“My starting point was, if I could create any tea that I wanted, what would I make?“ Caplan told FoodNavigator-USA.
“I’d want real fruit pieces, not artificial fruit flavors. I’d also want the most antioxidant-rich tea, something that tasted incredible. So I went to France, bought some charred white oak wood barrels and started barrel-aging tea.
“We blend the tea and other ingredients - apple pieces, orange peel, mint, cocoa nibs - throw them into the barrel and store them for about five months. The flavors from the orange peel and other ingredients seep into the tea. The difference in taste is really clear once you try it.”
And while barrel-aged tea is still a relatively novel concept - the most high-profile proponent is the uber-premium Rare Tea Cellar in Chicago, which uses rye, bourbon, sherry, brandy and oak barrels - the fact that AriZona Beverages recently launched ‘Oak Reserve’ - a ready-to-drink tea brewed with American oak chips inspired by a trip to a Napa Valley wine cellar - suggests it’s also got mainstream appeal.
They love our social mission
As for social activism, Tea of the People supports a new entrepreneur or non-profit each month that uses technology to tackle issues such as poverty alleviation, education and climate change, says Caplan (‘founder & chief activist officer’ - and a big tech enthusiast) and is currently donating a portion of its profits to Medic Mobile, a non-profit that advances healthcare in the developing world.
“When we talk to retailers, they always get a real kick about the barrel aging process and they really love the innovative flavors, the goji berries, the baobab, the Dragon Well tea,” he says.
“But the biggest thing I hear is that they love our social mission. [People say] you’re a start-up and you recognize that you have to give, that you have put some thought into how is our organization doing good?”
The tea of emperors
But is loose tea that costs $9.50 to $11.99 for a 50g box really tea for all the people, or just wealthy people?
Says Caplan: “The barrel aging process is expensive, we buy our tea from ethical and sustainable tea co-ops, and four of the varieties are organic, but for what we are doing, we’re priced really aggressively.
"So it is a more expensive than some other teas, but it’s really not the same product. Not all teas were created equal.
“We use Dragon Well green tea - the tea of the emperors - it’s what was served to Nixon [when he visited China in 1972] and it’s the most antioxidant-rich green tea in the world.”
So what’s the route to market?
He’s selling online, but like all start-ups in the premium food & beverage space, he started knocking on doors at independent retailers, gourmet food stores, and health food stores, one at a time, “like a 1950s air conditioning sales person”, says Caplan.
“But we’ve had such amazing feedback that we’ve got distributors interesting in giving it a shot as well. What’s been great is that they have also been willing to discount some of the fees to get us started.”
The second you go from theory to practice, it’s a whole different ballgame.
So is he confident in the commercial viability of his fledgling business or are there still days when he wakes up in a cold sweat wondering if he’s made the biggest mistake of his life?
“I’ve written 15 business plans and 25 financial projections in the last six months,” says Caplan, who reads philosophy rather than business books, and meditates daily to stay sane. “The second you go from theory to practice, it’s a whole different ballgame.”
There have also been times when he’s had to grit his teeth and stick to his guns, he says. “You can be talking to some people and you can see they have that smile people put on when they are trying to be nice, but they think I’m going to lose my behind. But we’re doing something different to other tea companies out there.
“The more challenges I face, the more difficult it is, the more encouraged I feel.”
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