Sunday, May 19, 2024

A Just Reboot: Seth Goldman on Honest Tea’s Rebirth As Just Ice Tea


If you’ve been quenching your heat-wave-induced summer thirst with Just Ice Tea and the bottles look a bit familiar to you — read on.

Back before kombucha and cold brews dominated supermarket coolers, there was Honest Tea. The story is documentary-worthy: in 1998, plucky optimists and iced tea lovers Seth Goldman and Barry Nalebuff launched Honest Tea — a ready-to-drink line of iced tea driven by their hankering for a cold tea product that wasn’t as cloyingly sweet as the category leaders at the time, Arizona and Snapple.

Goldman and Nalebuff were also activists at heart and wanted a tea brand that spoke to their ethos. It didn’t take long before Honest Tea became a huge success. Not only did it set the stage for less sweet drinks that actually tasted great, but it also introduced Fair Trade tea to the cold case and spurred on an industry of responsible businesses.

A decade after Goldman and Nalebuff founded it, Honest Tea sold to its largest shareholder, Coca-Cola. The brand chugged along with placement in mainstream retailers and fast-food chains. But as drink preferences changed — those once-fringe kombucha and cold brews now some of the fastest-growing categories in the ready-to-drink segment — the tea’s sales started to lag. Last year, Coca-Cola announced that it was going to discontinue the tea line.

Seth Goldman in a tea field with a bottle of Honest Tea
Seth Goldman in a tea field with a bottle of Honest Tea | Courtesy

“It was a heartbreaking piece of news to receive,” Goldman told me over a recent Zoom call. He said thousands of people were saddened by Coca-Cola’s announcement, not just because of the taste of the teas, but because of what the brand stood for. Goldman was one of those people.

Goldman, who now also serves as Executive Chairman at Beyond Meat and as co-founder and CEO of Eat the Change (and co-founder of PLNT Burger) almost immediately announced the tea would return through the Eat the Change snack platform, which he co-founded alongside chef Spike Mendelsohn. In just a matter of weeks, they brought the tea back to life under a new name, Just Ice Tea.

“I still wasn’t ready to say we’re gonna go; I was still kind of dealing with that shock, too,” he says. But more and more Honest Tea fans kept reaching out, and it touched a nerve. “We invested so much,” Goldman says. The brand’s longstanding commitments to organic and Fair Trade took years of work and countless relationships with tea growers around the world to build Honest Tea into the giant it became. “It would be a shame to think this was a failed experiment,” Goldman says. “It was horrifying to imagine.”  

Not only were consumers reaching out but also industry experts in the consumer packaged goods and ready-to-drink categories. They were offering to revive the brand. Goldman finally made the decision. “If anyone’s going to do that, we know how to do it,” he says. “So it really should be us.”

Seth Goldman and Spike Mendelsohn with Just Ice Tea
Seth Goldman and Spike Mendelsohn with Just Ice Tea | Courtesy

Goldman’s Eat the Change platform already includes a number of former Honest Tea team members. They had the infrastructure, the connections, and, of course, those tea recipes. The team had to move quickly as Honest Tea’s inventory was selling out. Timing it right would ensure Just Ice Tea could grab the shelf and cooler spaces previously owned by Honest Tea. They also had to launch while the weather was warm to capitalize on the demand heading into the summer months. All totaled, it took just 90 days from the day Goldman and the Eat the Change team decided to revive the brand to Just Ice Tea’s first appearance on a store shelf just before last summer.

It worked.

“We now have [retail sales] data and Whole Foods data that shows were the top-selling brands in Whole Foods and in the natural channel,” Goldman says. “So that was a quick thing to make happen.”

Now, more than two decades since Honest Tea’s launch, Goldman says Just Ice Tea is adding to its organic and Fair Trade commitments by avoiding the six crops that represent more than 57 percent of all agricultural production. “So that means no corn, soy, wheat, potatoes, rice, or sugarcane,” he says. That last one is a big concern when in the iced tea business. But Just Ice Tea has replaced it with agave or honey in its sweetened offerings, and the brand also offers unsweetened teas like its predecessor.

But what’s still most critical for the tea label is the commitment to Fair Trade tea, which means better wages and working conditions for the farmers. 

just ice tea bottles
Just Ice Tea is now available nationwide | Courtesy

“I wanted to make sure my co-founder [Mendelsohn] and our team got to see the impact of what we’re doing,”  So Just Ice Tea headed to Mozambique, which is home to a new supplier. “To see the impact we can have on this community was so inspiring. And so we’re now working to convert even more of our supply chain to this garden particularly because it’s just such a great impact story and great tea,” Goldman says.

Mozambique is one of the poorest countries in the world, and the province where Just Ice Tea works with growers is one of the poorest provinces in one of the poorest countries in the world. 

“So you’re, you’re looking at a place where more than half the people didn’t have access to clean drinking water, or that half the kids don’t have access to school or health care. And so these are super high impact opportunities,” Goldman says. Their local partners in the region have already set up more than 14 clean drinking water points throughout the community and there are an increasing number of school classes for children now too.

It’s all progress Goldman says is supported when consumers opt for a product that’s Fair Trade certified. The workers’ council in Mozambique decides where their Fair Trade funds go — it’s not a decision controlled by Eat the Change or its Fair Trade certifying partners. The community is looking at new transport projects, a pathology clinic, and a hospital. (Life expectancy in the province, at just 54, is among the lowest in the world.)

Goldman and Mendeslohn visited Mozambique | Courtesy

Now under the Eat the Change umbrella, Just Ice Tea, like the company’s other products (vegetable snacks) is more focused on food justice than ever before. 

“We want to democratize our products, we want them to be both distributed, widely priced, and packaged in a way that’s accessible and available,” Goldman says.

A video filmed at the Mozambique site shows Goldman and Mendelsohn almost giddy with joy as they report on the tea farmers and the changes in the community since going Fair Trade.

Goldman says it’s so important for retailers and consumers to see the work with their own eyes and how supporting efforts like Fair Trade can have such a big impact. “It helps people connect the dots and understand why it’s so important,” he says. “It happens every time we sell a bottle, whether or not somebody cares about it — like it or not.”

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