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CT's Evening with Mario Leite, CEO of Tea-rrific! Ice Cream

August 07, 2017 3:26 PM | Theresa Boyce (Administrator)

written by Bryan Mattimore who is Cofounder and Chief Idea Guy of the Growth Engine Innovation Agency in Norwalk, CT, and author of the books, Idea Stormers, and 21 Days to a Big Idea.

A recent CEO Trust dinner-event in Connecticut, sponsored by Milford Financial at the Stonebridge restaurant in Milford, CT, featured a compelling talk by entrepreneur Mario Leite. Chief Executive Officer of the five-year old CT ice cream company Tea-rrific!, Mario, along with his wife and cofounder, Souvannee Leite, shared some of the hard-won lessons, along with the tremendous satisfactions, in starting a new business based on a combination of personal passion and creative persistence.

If you don’t know Tea-rrific! and its products, it is tea-infused ice cream. Flavors include such exotically named products and ingredients as: Matcha Green Tea, Chunky London Mist, Ginger Matcha, London Mist, Masala Chai, Chamomile, and Lavender's Blueberry.

Yes, at first blush, it seems like an outlier, even crazy idea, right? Tea in ice cream? Turns out, it’s a wonderful combination… as all the CEO Trust members can now attest from their own personal taste-tastings. Comments included: “absolutely delicious,” “light and refreshing”, “tastes more natural and healthier than other ice creams,” and “the tea adds such extraordinary flavor!”   

Mario’s willingness to share the inside story of the significant challenges: including financing (from friends and family), product development, packaging, production, sales, and marketing... and the solutions he and his wife conceived to creatively address them, made for a fun and fascinating look at their five-year journey to success. Here are five key takeaways/lessons learned from Mario’s talk:

Quality is King (and Queen)

In these times of quick hits, short new product development time frames, and occasionally shoddy product quality, it was clear that Mario was passionate about creating quality products, and taking the time necessary to do it. He and his wife experimented for a full year to get just the right combination of ingredients and blends to create a delicious, healthier all-natural ice cream. His undergraduate major in molecular biology (before embarking on an investment banking career with RBC) clearly was invaluable in helping him create his innovative products. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the care that Mario and his wife put in the development of their products can be tasted in every bite.    

A Unique Offering Goes a Long Way

In the supermarket industry, retailers are: a) “cutting the long tail;” that is, limiting the number of products they offer in order to maximize sales and supply-chain efficiencies, and b) championing their own private label offerings. This creates a particularly tough environment for new brands to get distribution, especially for a start-up like Mario’s that didn’t have the start-up capital to pay slotting fees.

What made the difference? How was Mario able to get distribution in Whole Foods and other national chains – and not pay slotting fees? Quite simply, it was by having a unique, high-quality product. Once the buyers tasted his product, they were sold. 

Listen to Your Market… Continuously

One of the challenges in launching original/truly unique products, is that if the product is premium priced, the barrier to trail can be high. Consumers are reluctant to buy expensive or large sizes of products, if they aren’t sure they’ll like them. Mario’s solution: Offer a line of lower-priced single-serve offerings (priced at $1.95 versus a pint priced at $5.95) that allow consumers to try different flavors, and discover the flavors they are most passionate about before trading up to a full pint.   

Be Flexible in Your Distribution and Marketing

As supermarket chains get more sophisticated in analyzing the weekly and even daily sales performance of the products they carry – and ultimately the return per square foot -- there is a constant pressure to get the “turns” they are looking for. If a product doesn’t sell well day in and day out, retailers are much quicker now to de-list the product.

So, Mario explored other channels of distribution including shipping containers of frozen ice cream to Brazil and Japan. Two of the more surprising – and most successful – channels he developed are corporate and college cafeterias where his single serve packages have achieved a passionate following, including in the Facebook and LinkedIn corporate cafeterias in California.       

Be Aware of Trends… and Never Stop Innovating

What trends are emerging now in new food products? Heathier, more natural ingredients? Bigelow Tea, and their highly-successful new Benefits line is a good example of this trend. Cleaner, simpler labels/fewer ingredients? Consider Jolly Time’s successful new Simply Popped line of butter popcorn. The importance of single serve/on-the-go offerings? Entenmann’s mini versions of their classic cakes has been a big hit. Cleverly, Tea-rrific! has leveraged all these trends in its current line of products.  

What about the future? How about an allergen-free offering? Even dairy free ice cream? Mario and his product development team; that is, he and his wife, Souvannee, are currently working on new products in both of these areas.

So, what are the most important lessons learned from Mario’s talk for corporate innovation leaders? Simply put: Be passionate about the products and services your organization is creating, don’t take the easy road of developing a me-too product, be relentless about quality, make it easy for potential customers to try your product… and never stop listening to, and innovating for, your customers!