Some people like ice cream with their tea. But Mario Leite had a better idea. Why not have tea in your ice cream? The president and founder of Tea•rrific! Ice Cream says he came up with it because he's been an ice cream fanatic and tea drinker all his life.
Laid off as an investment banker in 2011, Leite decided to reinvent himself. So he turned to his first love, tea, and mated it with another, ice cream.
“I always wanted to experiment with tea flavors because I thought it was an ingredient that's underused in ice cream,” he says. “Also, the flavors already done in the market weren't executed very well.”
So Leite started off with a Thai iced tea, then launched Tea•rrific! Ice Cream. London Mist, Earl Gray with a hint of vanilla, was the first try. “It's a very popular-flavored tea. We knew if we couldn't make a good ice cream with that, we shouldn't go forward. But the reception was really positive,” he says.
People loved it. “The unique flavor, how refreshing the ice cream is. A theme we've been seeing as we progressed with the company was people describing our ice cream as very refreshing, which is not typical for super-premium ice cream. Part of it is how we handle the tea. Another part is when we decided we wanted to do a tea ice cream, we wanted to do a pure ice cream. I fell out of favor with the ice cream that had a lot of gums and preservatives in it,” says Leite. “I didn't like the texture. I wanted to go back to basics and create good old-fashioned ice cream, great cream, eggs, sugar, and add tea. No corn syrup or artificial additives.”
At the same time he came across an article in Family Circle magazine that noted how tea is now infused in lots of new foods. “Serendipity! I took it as a sign.”
Leite says he saw it as an opportunity to use a really great ingredient that's also very healthy, and which pairs well with spicy and fruity and savory flavors, that just wasn't being used in the market. “I wanted to make it the type of ice cream you get at a fine restaurant, that has a lot of great flavor but is also very clean off the palate. Early on I had chefs try it and one said, 'very creamy like a gelato but finishes like a sorbet,'” he recalls. “I wanted it to be gourmet, but ice cream also has to be fun.”
And where did that great name come from? “It's catchy to the ear, a play on the word terrific and ice cream,” he says. “Tea•rrific! Ice Cream. It works.”
Leite says the restaurant world is seeing tea infused in chocolate and liquor and meat rubs. “It's really catching on. Tea consumption in general has increased 10% every year for the last decade in the U.S. We're on the cusp of a pretty big brewing trend and you see a lot more restaurants and chefs starting to play with tea in their recipes as well.”
As for flavors, Chunky London Mist was added next, for those who like texture in their ice cream, the same base as London Mist, but with Belgian chocolate flakes and roasted pecans. When the company went into the retail market in 2012, Tea•rrific! Ice Cream had four flavors – Ginger Matcha, fresh ginger balanced with the delicate grassy taste of premium Matcha green tea; Masala Chai, a blend of Assam black and rooibos teas with sweet aromatic and peppery spices; a recently added freshly brewed Egyptian Chamomile, and Lavender’s Blueberry, a French lavender Darjeeling tea with a wild Maine blueberry puree, flavored with freshly squeezed lemon juice and fleur de sel.
“Our best seller is Ginger Matcha. People love green tea,” Leite says. “Matcha is a Japanese green tea. People love ginger-flavored foods these days. It even surprised me how everyone gravitated to it. Chunky London Mist and Masala Chai are right behind it.”
The ice cream line has recently been picked up by Whole Foods, and it's available in two regions, the North Atlantic, from Maine to northern Connecticut, and in the Northeast, including southern Connecticut, metropolitan New York, New Jersey and upstate New York. “We're in Texas, too. I met the buyer for Central Market at the Fancy Food Show last year and she really liked it,” he says.
The company has just started to make its way into foodservice, with upscale restaurants in Fairfield County, CT, starting to carry it. “Now we're making a strong push to build out our foodservice business in 2015,” he says. “We're going to continue to expand our retail presence but we think there's a lot of opportunity there for restaurants and other food service establishments to offer unique flavors and have chefs get excited about something new.”
The ice cream pairs well with lots of foods, Leite notes, such as chamomile made into a loaf, like a pound cake. “Restaurants that carry our ice cream pair it with most if not all their desserts. It's also very palate-cleansing so it's great for an after-meal dessert. We have coffee and tea places that use it for frappes or as standalone servings.
Sometimes when you say tea, you think Asian restaurant, but that's not the case. It's very diverse, from Asian to Mediterranean to trendy cafes. Restaurants can build profit into it by building it into the menu for tea lovers and broader foodies alike who look for unique dining experiences and would enjoy seeing tea in different forms. It adds an extra-special touch to your service,” he says.
The culinary world is recognizing this special ice cream, too. The company was a Martha Stewart 2014 American Made finalist, and in 2012 won best new product at the World Tea Expo East in the edible category. “In 2013 we entered the specialty foods product competition in Connecticut, where we're located, and swept the ice cream category. Judges are looking for innovative products that are well-executed and have a local 'made here' value to it. That's what resonated with the judges, its uniqueness, the high-quality ingredients, and the fact that we're locally sourced. There's no one else doing tea-infused ice cream as their focus,” he says.
While Leite loves the success, it hasn't all been a bed of roses. “There are quite a few technical challenges to making tea-infused ice cream – the fat in the ice cream and the fact that it's a frozen product does make it difficult to develop a good authentic tea ice cream flavor. It took us a year to refine it.”
All the flavoring is done in-house. “We produce our own tea, ginger juice, and blueberry puree, in small batches, and we just launched a brown butter sticky toffee with toasted almonds. It has a smoky flavor from lapsang souchong tea. We make the toffee swirl in-house after developing a recipe that doesn't use corn syrup, in 4-gallon batches at a time. All the specialty part of it we make in small batches and then we deliver our flavoring to our co-packer, who will make a couple thousand pints at a time of ice cream,” he says.
So, what's ahead? “A big part of our strategy for expansion is on the foodservice side,” Leite says. “Our ice cream is available through Sysco CT which carries three of our flavors – Ginger Matcha, Chunky London Mist and Masala Chai – and will also offer our other flavors as a special order.
Through Sysco CT we have distribution in Connecticut, Westchester County and western Massachusetts and we have a smaller regional distributor that covers NY metro, Long Island and northern New Jersey.
We're moving immediately to expand our presence in foodservice. We have interest from places in DC, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Nevada and Florida, among others. We can't get to all of them now,” says Leite, “but we can get a critical mass in a local region and go from there.”
The best way to contact the company is firstname.lastname@example.org.