If you've tasted Teakoe iced tea at one of the various Colorado eateries that carry it: Illegal Pete's, Larkburger, Hacienda Colorado, Woody Creek and more, then you've experienced how habit-forming small-batch iced tea can be -- and now, Teakoe is putting its tea bags on the shelves of area gourmet grocery stores, starting with Whole Foods, Tony's Market and Marczyk Fine Foods. We caught up with Craig Hakes, vice president of brand development, to talk about Teakoe's journey, adapting the recipe for home use and more.
Westword: How did Teakoe get its start and how did you end up on grocery-store shelves?
Craig Hakes: Teakoe started about five years ago when founder Pete Jokisch started selling it at the Cherry Creek Farmer's Market with his brother and business partner. Some chefs had come up to them and said, "Hey, this is great tea, can I get this at my restaurant?" And as a young company, whoever wants to buy your product, you sell it to them! We started selling to a couple of restaurants around here, it snowballed a little bit more, and everyone from Illegal Pete's to Woody Creek to Larkburger to Hacienda Colorado started carrying us. And over the past three years we got a bunch of inbound calls from customers asking where they could buy it. We kind of hobbled along offering them, sufficing their need, but we were kind of selling them the commercial version of our product -- there was no real packaging, and we didn't feel it was the best representation of us.
So in the fall of last year, we really started brainstorming: We need to release a true retail version of our brand. We went to the drawing board, got our blends together. We're here in Denver, craft capital of the world, everything we've done so far has been hand-crafted, so we wanted the packaging to sync up with that. So we designed all the packaging in-house, sent a bunch of buyer kits out to Whole Foods, Tony's, Marczyk's, a whole bunch of retailers across the country. We started to get some bites here locally, set up some demos, and the buyers were really enthusiastic about the product because our blends are all specifically formulated to be served on ice. It really caught on like wildfire.
What adjustments did you have to make to the recipe to make it suitable for consumers?
We had to make some adjustments -- not a lot, because if a customer had our iced tea at Larkburger, we wanted to make sure we could direct them to Whole Foods to buy it or buy it from our website. There were some changes we had to make. Whole Foods has pretty strict guidelines as to what they can and can't have, but we use real ripe fruits in the teas and the formula is pretty similar to what we use in restaurants. They mirror each other with the taste and flavor profile. We had to bring down the package size quite a bit, from gallons to quarts. A lot of it had to do more with packaging than anything else -- we put them in filter packs, a large tea bag for customers at home; restaurants use different commercial equipment. But we have our own lab and do everything here in-house, so we were able to work through that in our lab and come up with those tweaks. It was a lot of fun, and we did it over the winter.
How did you approach the packaging and what do you think makes Teakoe stand out?
I think the biggest thing is, when we went down the aisles of grocery stores and looked at the tea aisle, everything was very English or Asian-themed -- the branding and flavor profile -- and we looked at ourselves and said, "We're an American iced tea company, from Denver, and our flavor profiles are meant to be served on ice." These aren't hot tea blends that are meant to be put on ice. They're real pomegranate and hibsicus flower and lime peel in there, these are craft iced teas. So when we took our inspirations, we bought a bunch of six-packs of beer brands we admire, craft breweries, and so when you see Teakoe in Whole Foods or you see it in Tony's and you look at all your different choices, ours just stick right out. And so I think that from a customer perspective, it's branding that they will be attracted to just out of curiosity.