The Vancouver-based company secured national Canadian distribution last year and will now launch its coffee leaf tea – made using coffee tree leaves often discarded by growers – into more than 300 stores across the US. In a few weeks, the product heads into Sprouts Farmers Markets across 15 states at 285 locations and into Whole Foods stores across Northern California, as well as Mollie Stone’s and the Rainbow Grocery Co-op.
Speaking to FoodNavigator-USA about the expansion, Wize Monkey co-founder and CEO Max Rivest said the company was completely ready to move stateside.
“It’s a big jump for us but it’s time we take that step now. It’s time to go to the big show; go to Broadway,” he said.
“We’ve been waiting for this for a while. We’ve been purposefully slow playing and not being ‘out there’ too much, refining as we go and not over-shooting.”
With a national rollout across Sprouts, Rivest said there was great scope to prove to the market the product had traction and a unique message.
“I feel once this gets in the spotlight in places like California and eventually New York, this will start to bubble up quite well,” he said.
Rivest said Wize Monkey’s coffee leaf tea would no doubt make waves in the US tea sector because it was different.
“We want to bring more people into tea and be an ambassador. Tea is growing fast but in the grocery realm there aren’t any pioneers – it still hasn’t changed a whole lot in the last 20 years. We want to shake things up with a product that has no associations on what it is – it’s a clean slate…We’re inventing a new sub-category in the tea category.”
He said that while there was the obvious draw for tea drinkers, the product also struck a chord with those ‘coming off’ coffee and looking for an alternative.
“People come to us when they’re transitioning from coffee to tea because it’s familiar. It’s also easy to steep – you can steep it for as long as you want and it’s not bitter – so the user-friendliness is appealing. We worked really hard to create the current recipe but part of it is the magic of the coffee leaf being so smooth and forgiving.
“As long as you get the processing right, it rivals even some of the best green teas… Now we can create green teas, black teas and eventually something similar to matcha - although it’s not matcha, I don’t know what we’d call it – but there is a lot to do with it. We have our hands full going forward in terms of innovation, and that will speed up this year.”
For the time being, Rivest said Wize Monkey would be found in the premium tea sections of store but added there was certainly scope to experiment in the future and venture into the coffee section with different SKUs.
The channel, the brand, the goal
Rivest said the launch into Sprouts and Whole Foods was indicative of Wize Monkey’s US strategy – to target the health food and premium grocery channels.
“We have so much ground to cover in the US… There are so many health food channels in the mid-range, so we won’t be looking at conventional [retail] for a little while, unless there’s an opportunity that’s really worth it,” he said.
For the next year, at least, he said the company would be extremely busy with health food and premium grocery channels.
“We’ve been waiting almost five years to get this product into the US market, especially in a great retailer. For us, we’re hitting the next level, so we’ve got to be really sharp, nimble and deal with some tough decisions.
“…We’re going to be incredibly busy and I know we’ll make mistakes, so at this point we want to plan as much in advance as possible and build contingency plans.”
Asked if the company had learned anything from Canada that may prove useful in its US launch, Rivest said it had, importantly, refined the brand message.
“The major learning has basically been how to talk about the product and the hierarchy of that message because there’s so much – taste, craft food, oxidation and some fermentation, which is really cool to talk about depending on who you talk to, and obviously the social impact we’re spearheading.”
With its move into the US, Rivest said Wize Monkey was on the lookout for fundraising opportunities and new team members to help scale business, faster.
“We’re not going to disappear in a couple of years. We’ve got a lot of steam behind us and we’re looking for more partners to keep that going,” he said.