Mario Leite, the founder of Tea-rrific! Ice Cream, Bridgeport, Conn., is a self-proclaimed “ice cream fanatic.” After losing his job in investment banking in 2011, Leite (pronounced “late”) dove into the ice cream business, combining two culinary loves: ice cream and tea. Dairy Foods editor-in-chief Jim Carper spoke with Leite about the company, his goals and lessons that he would share with other food entrepreneurs.
Dairy Foods: How did you learn to make ice cream?
Mario Leite: I’ve been an ice cream fanatic all my life and also a tea lover. When I graduated college, I received as a gift an ice cream maker with a bucket where you put the ice and the salt in. The only technological upgrade it had was a motor instead of a hand crank. It was pretty labor-intensive. When I got married, my wife bought me a two-quart Cuisinart, which was an upgrade.
But that was put in storage for a while as I was building my banking career. When I was let go in August of 2011 I dusted it off and started making ice cream again. I always wanted to try infusing tea into ice cream. And I’m an aficionado of tea. I drank it all my life.
I started experimenting with it. I also felt, to be honest, the ones that were on the market were not very authentic to the tea flavor. The first thing I tried was an Earl Grey, and I put a little hint of vanilla in there. The response was positive from everyone I spoke to.
Dairy Foods: At the time, were you making ice cream as a hobby or had you thought about going into it as a business venture?
Leite: I started as a hobby. I never saw an Earl Grey flavor, or a very good one, so I tried that first. And I got a pretty positive response. I saw that artisanal ice cream was growing, people were more receptive to more adventurous flavors, and the tea culture was growing. And then after I started experimenting, I saw a Family Circle article that was focused on this growing trend of tea-infused food.
Desserts and chocolates and mints and even spirits were all getting infused with tea. I guess it was a serendipitous sign. No one was really using tea as the focused ingredient in their ice cream. And so we said, “You know what? I think we got something here.” We came up with the name Tea-rrific! Ice Cream, and we were off to the races in the end of December 2011.
Dairy Foods: Did you teach yourself how to make ice cream or did you get some books or go to any of these university courses?
Leite: I didn’t do any university courses. I had been making ice cream for a while using books and experimenting. When I was getting serious about launching the company, I started speaking to a number of people who have had experience making ice cream for many years. So what I wanted to do was I wanted to make a very clean ingredient list ice cream. I wanted it to be a wholesome ice cream with no gums, or preservatives or corn syrup.
That had its technical challenges. When you mix it with a nuanced ingredient like tea, getting really good flavor in a full-fat ice cream is technically challenging. So I was speaking both with specialty tea people who knew how to brew tea and with ice cream production people.
I’m a U-Conn alum and I connected with the guy who runs production there at the U-Conn dairy bar. And they were gracious enough to do some consulting work with me for free. And I also worked with my co-packer [Buck’s Ice Cream in Milford, Conn.] to figure out what is the right formulation for the base to still have a creamy, nice texture but also so the flavor of the tea will come out.
And neither the ice cream guys or the tea guys knew how to do both. People who are in specialty tea are not used to brewing tea for flavoring. And the folks on the ice cream side are not used to working with fresh-brewed tea. So that’s kind of where we came in and connected the dots between the two. It took us about 10 months to do the testing and come out with the right base and the right way to process the fresh-brewed tea to get the best flavor out.
Dairy Foods: Had you considered using tea flavoring or did you want to go with the fresh-brewed tea right from the beginning?
Leite: We decided from the start to use fresh-brewed tea. One, we felt we got fresher, better flavor by using a loose-leaf tea and locking it into the ice cream. And, two, it actually gives us our trade secret and know-how, and keeps that specialty part of it in-house. If you’re buying a tea flavoring from someone, everyone can buy the same flavoring of tea.
Dairy Foods: What were you looking for in a co-packer and how did you settle on the co-packer that is making your ice cream?
Leite: We wanted to find someone who saw it as a real partnership where we’re both going to benefit and grow. And they saw it as a partnership as opposed to just a vendor/supplier transaction. And the folks that we ended up with were very open and flexible trying to figure out what’s the best way to get the best product.
And then one of the main reasons I went with a co-packer was I wanted to make sure I had capacity to grow into. We looked at renting a kitchen and making it ourselves, but we decided to go to a co-packer because we didn’t want to limit our growth by not having the capacity to grow.
Dairy Foods: Tell me more about your operation.
Leite: We have a 1,500-square-foot facility in Bridgeport where we fresh-brew our tea, we cold-press our own ginger juice. We make our own purees. Everything that flavors the ice cream, we make in-house. We deliver that to our co-packer who makes the finished product. They’re about 20 minutes away. And that’s where we also warehouse our finished product.
Dairy Foods: Last year you introduced the matcha green tea. What do you have on tap for 2017?
Leite: We’re working on a few things that I don’t want to divulge just yet. We’re working on a few things that blend our unique tea flavors with things that people are more familiar with. I call them gateway flavors.
Dairy Foods: Do you see yourself moving into coffee flavors or adding coffee flavors to your line-up?
Leite: Not solely just coffee but we have an idea for a coffee/tea blended flavor that I think will be really, really good. So I’m actually excited about that one. We’ve been looking at doing a cold-brewed coffee with one of our teas that I think is going to come out pretty fantastic.
I can tell you one flavor that we have developed is a buckwheat tea flavor, but we just haven’t put it out there yet. It has a fruit compote in it and it’s sweetened with maple syrup. It’s like buckwheat pancakes with syrup and fruit.
We also launched a 4-ounce single-serve SKU with a spoon inside in three of our more popular flavors, ginger matcha, chai and matcha green tea.
Dairy Foods: You’re moving into the foodservice arena and expanding your channels of distribution there. What can that do for your brand?
Leite: We’re definitely looking at foodservice, particularly what I call non-grocery retail, and corporate cafeterias and universities. And then obviously, restaurants and hotel and leisure.
Dairy Foods: Do distributors get you into those locations or is it your company sales calls?
Leite: It’s more of a call where you’re making the call to the end customer, which is either the university or the corporate office. If they like the product then, they’ll connect you to the people that can deliver the product to them.
Dairy Foods: What advice do you have for other food entrepreneurs? What lessons would you share with other start-ups?
Leite: Packaging is important. It’s worthwhile to take the time to really understand your product, where it fits in, what the messaging is, how you want that to be respected in the market and how it shelves. You want to go to the grocery store and look at how the different ice creams look on the shelf. Which ones pop out? Which ones don’t?
You definitely have to do the demo-ing but at some point, you get diminished returns. You want to look at what your marketing mix is in terms of digital marketing and direct sales. I would focus on things that impact sales directly.
Dairy Foods: Tell me how Tea-rrific! Ice Cream appears on the store shelf. What’s the consumer going to see when she browses that ice cream case?
Leite: We have a color-coordinated line. Each flavor has its own color. You’ll be able to recognize pretty quickly. It’s like if you go to an upscale tea shop and you’re looking at a tea tin. It’s more of a simple, gourmet sophisticated design. It’s not very busy. There are not a lot of graphics everywhere.
Dairy Foods: Did you go into this thinking Tea-rrific! could be a national brand or were you looking to be more local or regional?
Leite: I actually thought the brand could be global. We went into it feeling that this could be a brand that could not belong just in the United States but could have legs overseas. Tea is the second-most consumed beverage in the world. There are a number of countries outside of the U.S. that are more familiar with the taste profiles than here.
Dairy Foods: You have a lot of very blue chip customers: Whole Foods, Stop & Shop, Wegmans and Shop Rite, to name just some.
Leite: We’ve been fortunate to have some nice accounts. Wegmans is our most recent one. We also started launching retail into Northern California. Right now, it’s grown organically, so it’s more on the independent store level. We’re hoping to grow into some of the more key accounts out there as well.
Since its launch in October 2012, Tea-rrific! has received several awards and honors. In 2012 the company attended the World Tea Expo East in Philadelphia where it received the Best New Product in the edible category. It won the ice cream category twice in Connecticut’s Specialty Food Competition. And it was a finalist in the Martha Stewart American Made Food Contest.
In 2015 Tea-rrific! was a sofi finalist at the Fancy Food Show with its chamomile flavor. This magazine called it one of the top 10 new dairy products for 2016. Yankee Magazine in 2015 named masala chai an editor’s pick.