A little over a year ago, Heath Nielsen stumbled into an HTeaO store in the Dallas area and was immediately struck. He was in love at first sip with what he calls the “incredible infectious vibe” of the iced tea fast casual.
Nielsen is no stranger to the beverage segment—he previously served as chief retail officer of Black Rifle Coffee Company as well as senior vice president, U.S. Canada for Nestle Coffee Partners’ Starbucks division. Cumulatively he has 25-plus years of retail and brand management experience.
A year and a LinkedIn post later, Nielsen found himself face-to-face with Justin Howe, HTeaO’s CEO. Nielsen would join the team as president officially on May 10.
“I went in thinking I was just going to make a friend, but what I found was a rocket ship of an opportunity,” Nielsen says as he thinks back to those initial conversations. “Once I got in and met Justin and understood the culture and quality [of HTeaO] it was a done deal for me.”
Founded in Texas in 2009, the 111-unit HTeaO is America’s largest iced tea franchise. Its menu includes 26 flavors of freshly brewed iced tea, coffee drinks such as the Texas Chai Tea Latte, and more. There is even a “secret menu” with new flavor combinations unveiled each month, such as May’s Pink Flamingo: Pink Lemonade and Sweet Wild Raspberry.
Features like the secret menu foster what Nielsen calls a “brilliantly fun” company culture and overall contribute to the brand’s momentum. He knew he wanted to be a part of it, even if Howe did not initially plan to have a president.
“I had no intentions of ever hiring a president,” Howe admits. “But it is like we are cut from the same mold on culture and operations. The beauty of what we have now is we can divide and conquer because of our complementary styles [of leadership].”
With 450 locations in development in 14 different states and a projected 500 locations open by the end of 2026, Nielsen and Howe are focused on both unit-level economics and supporting existing franchise partners while maintaining the entrepreneurial spirit that has propelled the brand forward since day one.
“We’re having conversations around strategic market growth,” Howe says. “We have people taking chances on us in new markets, and we want to deploy as many resources as possible in terms of personnel and financial resources to make sure that they’re profitable, not just open.”
Nielsen is confident his experience with growing and innovative brands will help support franchisees with goals such as increases in top-line sales and per transaction amounts. Together, Howe and Nielsen are on what they call a “tour”—meeting both potential and existing franchisees to deepen their relationship and spread the brand’s culture.
“We’ll have more in-depth strategic growth plans in the future,” Howe says. “But we’re in a phase for the next year where we are solely focusing on unit-level economics and existing franchise partner support.”
Nielsen adds that existing locations have hit a “prime growth and maturity point” and need additional systems and processes put in place to ensure their long-term success. He is looking forward to aiding franchisees on components such as real estate, construction, operations, and educating them on “the world of tea.”
Howe points to one of HTeaO’s established operators as a testament to its ability to develop franchisees amidst a period of rapid expansion. A nurse-turned-franchisee came to the chain with no experience and her life savings but has recorded week-over-week increased sales. She also achieved the brand’s first 100 on a secret shopper initiative and is well on her way to becoming a multi-unit operator.
“HTeaO can establish the strongest relationship with franchisees and partner with them during the entire sales process,” Nielsen says. “It is the greatest I have seen so far. [HTeaO] stays true to its entrepreneurial roots.”
HTeaO ranked ninth on Entrepreneur’s 2023 Top New & Emerging Franchises. As the brand continues to grow, both Howe and Nielsen are committed to onboarding franchisees who want to “brew purpose” and make a difference in their communities.
In the future, target markets for HTeaO will be centered around assisting established locations. These include Florida and the area around Texas’s Coastal Bend. Nielsen and Howe are also looking at New Mexico and Arizona, where construction and development deals are already underway.
Recently the brand also entered Georgia for the first time in a franchise development agreement with local entrepreneurs. During expansion, the iced tea concept continues to guide franchisees through mentorship, marketing efforts, promotions, and community-based philanthropy.