What's happened to Jim Lamancusa is every startup owner's dream. Since launching Cusa Tea in May 2017, the company has rapidly expanded distribution of premium instant tea packets to more than 750 retail locations in the natural grocery, conventional grocery and outdoor industries, from REI to Safeway Denver to Sprouts nationwide starting Aug. 1.
Lamancusa's love for tea budded during his time in Asia—first as a study abroad student in Hong Kong, then as a resident in Thailand and Nepal. When he returned to America, coffee didn't sit well in his stomach anymore and he swapped the caffeinated culprit for tea. Now, he sources his ingredients from a tea farm in the southeast region of China, nestled in rolling hills speckled with lakes, nearly an hour from any major highway.
We caught up with Lamancusa last week to hear more about the science behind his product, his mission to beat the stereotype that "instant" means low quality, and how he's managed to grow immensely by selling packets of sugarless tea for about $1 per serving.
Tell us how your tea is different from other instant teas, such as Lipton or Nestea.
Jim Lamancusa: When I started, I tried three different methods to make the tea instant and none of them worked. I tried the same method that Starbucks uses for Via. Then I tried the two traditional methods of dehydration called Spray Drying and Freeze Drying, which are high heat or extreme cold dehydration. The problem with both of these methods is that they damage the sensitive tea leaves and destroy the flavor, aroma and antioxidants. I was hoping that if I used a better quality of tea, maybe it’ll taste better. But no matter what tea I used, high heat or extreme cold dehydration damaged the leaves and made it taste bland. I thought that I wasn’t going to have a company at that stage.
The breakthrough came when I saw my wife putting on rose extract eye cream, made with rose extract. I wondered, how are they getting a rose petal into a cream? I reached out to two botanical extra technology facilities in Asia and asked if they could do it for tea. They said they’d never done it before, but they’d try. I flew 75 pounds of loose leaf tea to Asia and spent two weeks there. Through several modifications, we found that the process worked:
- First, we cold brew the tea for eight hours and then strain out the leaves, so we’re left with liquid tea.
- Then we fill a machine called vacuum dehydrator halfway up with tea. The air above it we turn into zero percent humidity—which rapidly evaporates the water into the air above it.
- By the end of a couple hours, the tea has lost all its water but nothing else. At the bottom of the machine is this sheet of crystalized tea that we run through a grinder to make into a powder. The tea leaves are then composted and become soil at the tea farm.
- We package it immediately so it never sees humidity again until the customer opens it and adds hot or cold water.
- It rehydrates in three seconds, and is never going to over-steep. You get a perfectly brewed cup every time. You don’t need to have boiling water, wait five minutes for the tea to steep, then wait another five minutes for the water to cool down so you can drink it, or need to look for a place to discard your wet, soggy tea bag. It keeps all the flavor and benefits of tea, but makes it incredibly convenient and delicious.
Why do you think you’ve expanded so fast? And as a small team, how are you handling that?
JL: I expanded really quickly because I have worked in all of these industries before—food service, outdoor, and grocery industries. Because of my contacts, I'm definitely a step up than someone coming off the couch with a good idea. What's been really cool is that I've never been told no by a buyer. There's no doubt my product is in demand. The challenge is just the awareness because the term "instant" doesn’t usually mean quality. It’s a lot of sampling and tasting and awareness driving. The more times I can get people to taste this, there’s this lightbulb moment, like, that’s seriously instant?
To handle growth, I've had to turn down three retailers because I don’t want to continue to expand distribution without gaining velocity first. If there are retailers outside the Rocky Mountains and California, it’s got to be a perfect fit for me to say yes. I wouldn’t go into Safeway nationwide right now because it wouldn’t sell. There have been less reorders on the East Coast. Part of it is me being based in Colorado. If we’re not in those stores doing demos, it’s just going to sit on the shelves. I want to build my castle, have a good foundation, and then expand.
How do you manage expansion into mainstream markets and still focus on the outdoor community?
JL: The idea for the brand was built in the backcountry, but the more I develop the business, I realize more that this isn’t just an outdoor product. We’re all so busy and doing different things, more than just being outside. There’s no question that I’m really comfortable being in REI nationwide. They get it. But we're also hitting consumers that shop in all the different stores, who are looking at ingredient labels and who want to reduce their sugar intake. Sometimes people get really focused on the outdoor industry as hardcore and there are those consumers, but when I look at the actual customers, not many of them are like that. The whole industry is adapting and it needs to continue to adapt. The want active lifestyle and what that means is they’re looking at what they’re putting in their body. They may never hike a 14,000-foot peak. But they may like to hike, or do yoga or ride their bike.