Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Q&A with Mario Leite of Tea-rrific! Ice Cream

Tea and ice cream might not seem like they go together but they definitely do! A few years ago I met Mario of Tea-riffic! Ice Cream at World Tea East. Not only did he used to live in my hometown but his Chunky London Misty really knocked my socks off. There is always a long line for samples whenever I see them at local shows and events. Today's post is a bit of a Q&A. Mario shared how he started his company, where he draws inspiration from and more.

Make sure you check out the special promo code just for +Tea for Me Please readers at the end of this post!

Q: Have you always been a tea drinker? What’s your favorite kind?

A: Yes, I have always drank tea since I was young. My favorites are earl grey, cha, jasmine green tea and green tea. 

Q: Ice cream and tea aren’t usually associated with each other. What was the inspiration for starting Tea-rrific! Ice Cream?

A: I am an ice cream fanatic and as I said in the last answer, I love tea and have always drank it since I young. I have been making ice cream at home ever since my co-workers from my first job after college gave me an ice cream maker for my birthday....did I say I was an ice cream fanatic? :)

So through the years  I always made ice cream at home. Several years ago my wife bought me a Cuisinart ice cream maker but when I started my investment banking career I had little time for making ice cream. After I lost my job in August 2011, I started making ice cream again and the first thing I thought of doing was making tea-infused ice cream. I thought tea was a great ingredient that was little explored. The varieties of tea are endless and they are very flexible in terms of their ability to pair well with other ingredients. It was also a healthy way to flavor ice cream.

The few tea flavors that were available in the market were not well executed and they were not very authentic tasting. So I started trying it out. The first flavor I made was London Mist, which is Earl Grey with a hint of vanilla. It was a hit with all who tried it. Around the same time I saw a Family Circle article focused on how to was being infused into all sorts of foods and I took it as a sign. Thus Tea-rrific! Ice Cream was born!

Q: I really enjoyed the Chunky London Mist when I tried it at World Tea East a few years ago. What’s the most popular flavor?

A: That is one my of my personal favorites but our Ginger Matcha is our best seller, followed by Masala Chai, Chunky London Mist and Chamomile. The Chamomile is a finalist for a 2015 Sofi Award in the Ice Cream/Gelato/Frozen Treats category. Final judging takes place at the summer Fancy Food Show at the end of June. 

Q: I love that your commitment to not using any artificial colors or flavors. Was it hard to create recipes using only all-natural ingredients? 

A: Absolutely, but one thing we will never compromise on is the use of gums, preservatives and corn syrup. As an ice cream lover (sorry, fantatic), I got tired of the gummy overly sweet ice creams available on the market. They left a coating on your tongue, were over-artificially flavored and just sat in your stomach. I wanted to make an ice cream that was rich, creamy and satisfying but that also was refreshing and finished clean off the palate; like something a chef would make from scratch with natural ingredients.

Most manufacturers and co-packers are used to making ice cream with these additives. It has become common practice but I wanted our ice cream to be pure, clean and just like old-fashioned homemade ice cream. To make ice cream like that to scale is very challenging, but worth it. It was particularly challenging because the delicate nuances of the teas can easily be masked or overwhelmed by the cream or other flavors you are adding to them. It took us the better part of a year working with tea specialists and ice cream production veterans, along with a lot of late nights and trails to the get the recipe right. We still tweak things, based on the knowledge we have gained to continually make an even better product.

Q: How do you decide what goes into each flavor?

A: I get inspired by many different things, from a walk through the aisles of a specialty food store to the foods I eat when travel to what tea blenders are combining their teas with. Sometimes the combinations just come to me. I'll have an idea for a flavor and then we'll try different things until we get the combination right. Sometimes the flavors are more exotic, sometimes the flavors are based on traditional flavor combinations that just work well with tea.

Q: What were the biggest challenges that you faced when starting your business?

A: Securing the right distribution and understanding the best ways to spend your sales and marketing dollars. We are doing something particularly challenging in the food industry and that is to sell a premium product based on truly unique flavor profiles that the majority of customers are not familiar with, especially in ice cream form, but we believe it they just try it they will love it.4

Q: Where can my readers find your ice cream?

A: Our ice cream is distributed throughout the Northeast in places like Whole Foods, Stop & Shop, Fairway, Kings and Mr. Greens. We are now just starting to expand into the Mid-Atlantic and Midwest. We also just recently launched an online store and we ship throughout the country.