Food & Beverage | July 2014 | By Barney Wolf

Very Cool

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Iced tea servings are up 25 percent at quick-service restaurants since 2009. thinkstock
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“With our food, five blended teas work very well,” Leith says. “We’re pretty crazy about the quality, so we make sure it’s fresh all the time. If you keep the tea too long, the flavor is not as vibrant.”

The best-selling teas vary from store to store throughout the 25-unit concept with restaurants in Colorado and Arizona. Planned Texas stores will have sweet tea, too.

Tea is so important at Peet’s Coffee & Tea that it’s in the company’s name. The chain serves a wide range of cold tea beverages, including iced tea, Coolers made with tea and juice, lattes, and creamy cold drinks called Freddos.

“The interest in tea continues to grow, the places offering tea are going up, and the general understanding of tea by people is rising,” says Eliot Jordan, Peet’s director of tea.

Peet’s brews two unsweetened, unflavored iced teas every day: Summer House, a blend of China and India black teas, and Jade Green, a blend of China green tea and jade oolong that is smooth and tastes a little nutty.

“You can make iced tea from any type of green tea, but you want to stay away from the grassy-tasting ones,” Jordan says. “You want the ones that are mellow and toasty.”

The company’s three Coolers are sweet and fruity. Hibiscus Breeze, for instance, consists of hibiscus flowers, chamomile, and cinnamon with some added lemonade.

Peet’s also offers matcha—a super-fine, high-quality green tea powder—as an iced tea, in regular and flavored lattes, and as a Freddo. “It has a really unique, rich taste,” Jordan says.

One tea company making a push into the limited-service category with its fresh-brewed iced tea is Honest Tea. The tea was rolled out in Smashburger stores last year and has been added at other fast-casual chains, such as Saladworks and Lime Fresh.

“Our tea is a nice entry for operators to get organic and fair trade–certified language in their stores,” says Seth Goldman, Honest Tea’s president.

A number of restaurants had offered bottled Honest Tea, but the on-premises brewed tea is new. “We did some trials with smaller restaurants before the Smashburger deal took it national,” he says.

Honest Tea’s core brewed offering is a black tea, but there are also raspberry, green, and lemon herbal versions sweetened with organic cane sugar.

Iced tea is a menu item that is better in restaurants than at home, Goldman says. “Consumers are not going to have tea leaves of this caliber, sweetened like this, and brewed in this way.” It’s also quite profitable, costing pennies per cup, he adds.

Green tea was the second flavor created at frozen-yogurt chain Pinkberry and continues to be available in most stores. There is also a green tea smoothie, plus green tea latte yogurt and smoothies.

“We used to have only two smoothies, and one was green tea,” says Laura Jakobsen, Pinkberry’s senior vice president of marketing and design. “When we relaunched our smoothies, it became one of the options that franchisees can rotate in.”

The green tea frozen-yogurt flavor is “very approachable,” she says, although not exactly mainstream. “It is an authentic green tea formula, and we use matcha powder.”

S&D Coffee and Tea’s Buckner says tea creations are just getting started.

“We will see more cold and hot tea lattes, tea smoothies, sparkling tea, tea freezes, among others,” he says. “Tea lattes are already taking off, and you are going to see more quick-service restaurants adopt them. I think it will explode over the next few years.”

San Diego–based Dlush, which founder and CEO Jefferey Adler dubs a “cross-category drink concept” aimed at youth, is one example of an upstart brand pushing tea to its limits.

“We marry tea with fruit or ice cream or food to make drink combinations that are pretty bold,” he says. “It’s not for the faint of heart.”

Cucumber Apple Fizz, for instance, has a black tea base, Sprite, and fresh-sliced cucumbers and green apples. It is topped with Pop Rocks.

“We’re really interested in pioneering eating and drinking in one vessel,” he says, noting similarities with boba or bubble tea, a Taiwanese drink with milk and tea with tapioca pearls.

Most Dlush locations serve bubble tea, but the nine-unit chain was prevented from selling it at one college due to competitive restrictions. As a result, the company came up with some new food-and-drink-in-a-cup options. One features a cup filled to the 20-ounce mark with tea, topped by a small plastic tray housing food such as cashew nuts or popcorn. Straws, sometimes adorned with candy-like jellied fruit rings, go through both the food and the tea.

Dlush also makes Thai iced tea, which is tea sweetened with sugar and half-and-half.

“It is unabashedly very sweet, but what makes our Thai tea different is that we can make it various ways,” Adler says. “Most have half-and-half cream, but we can go with almond milk or soy milk, and people have the permission to play by adding other items.”

After all, he says, “we’re just looking to have fun.”

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