The natural and specialty channel retail giant raised eyebrows a few years back when it announced its plans to open stores in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood—as the Chicago Tribune reported earlier this year: “The chain known for selling organic and specialty foods to well-heeled clientele, [is] trying to persuade residents of one of the poorest neighborhoods in Chicago to support a store set to open in September.”
But the retailer is upping its efforts to connect with local communities, and a local supplier open house, like the one where Buckner and Malik were scouted with their product back in March, is one example of these efforts.
“There were 50 people that came to the room, but we had put together a package—we reached that meeting with probably the most buttoned-up product in the room,” Malik told FoodNavigator-USA. Their TeaSquares, square-shaped clusters of puffed millet, powdered tea, and nuts, are now sold in several Chicago-area Whole Foods stores, as well as online through the start-up’s website.
Demand for tea, snacks, portion control, and energy
There is a demand for energy and a demand for snacking, the co-founders noticed. “It kind of came from myself working in the corporate world,” Buckner said about his brand’s origin story. He observed that the people around him (himself included) would eat “a bunch of really bad stuff—chips, candy—just to get through the work day.”
So he started thinking about developing a product that can offer satiety and energy between meals and through the day, until finalizing the current incarnation of TeaSquares at the end of February this year.
There are three varieties with slightly different ingredients in each: Citrus Green Tea Matcha, Acai Blueberry Tea, and Madagascan Vanilla Tea (MSRP $6.99 for a 3.5oz bag). “Tea on its own is really huge, it’s a growing trend,” Buckner said. He argued that the versatile ingredient can pair with many different flavors, and he’s eyeing lavender and chai for potential new launches.
They are targeting the 25 to 35-year-old crowd. “A lot of our customers are in [that] age range, and they’re looking for these smaller meals,” Buckner said. “Whether it’s on their way to work in the morning, or afternoon pick-me-up, or even in the evening—even our packaging is designed to be resealable so they can snack on it throughout the day.”
Locally made snack with globally sourced tea
“We have our own commercial manufacturing facility that’s located in the Southside of the city here,” Buckner said. It’s owned by his family, as his mother is a chef and runs a catering business. Manned by himself—the only full-time employee, together with part-time co-founder Malik, co-founder Alex Stomp, and an additional part-time employee, the products are being made in small batches to mid-size batches.
Most of the nuts and grains are sourced in the US, but the tea is from overseas. “Ground up, organic, black tea is ridiculously hard to find,” Malik said. “So we found a source in India, and we grind it using a coffee grinder into a powder here.”
Though being a home-grown brand was a big part of their appeal when pitching to the local Whole Foods chain, the co-founders said that locally sourcing ingredients isn’t a big priority or claim for their brand right now. “We’re mostly concerned with all the ingredients being super high quality and not so much where they’re coming from,” Malik added.
Demos and development
For this brand in its infancy, being on several store shelves for only two months, being visible in the community is a big part of their awareness strategy.
They haven’t had the chance to attend any of the big shows yet, but they contend that in-store demos, as well as a tent in one of Chicago’s many street festivals that pop up in the summer, are good ways to put their brand out there and get feedback.
“Generally the response has been pretty positive,” Malik said. But there are times when they get valuable constructive criticism even if it meant they would lose a potential account. “We had a conversation with a gym that, they were interested in the product initially, but then they said ‘it’s a little too bland.’”
The feedback led to a reformulation of the product, and several table demos afterwards were converted into sales, right in front of the co-founders’ eyes. “I would say around 75% of the people who sampled the product and talked with us purchased the product,” Buckner said. “Which is huge, I’ve talked with other brands and they said ‘if you talk with 20% of people and they buy it, that’s great.’”