Inko’s: Dedicated to White Tea
By SARAH THEODORE
Living in a big city has its advantages. For some, it’s great restaurants, for others, museums and cultural attractions. For the creators of Inko’s White Tea, the big city offered the inspiration for a new business. Back before most of us had heard of the rare and expensive variety of tea, Andy and Cecille Schamisso discovered white tea in New York City’s Chinatown. Actually, Cecille discovered the tea; Andy only knew that he enjoyed drinking it.
“One summer day, my wife stopped making me the iced tea that I was craving,” Schamisso says. “I asked her why, and she said,” Well, it’s white tea and I bought it in Chinatown and it’s very rare.” Intrigued, Schamisso did a little research, which included information on the healthful qualities of white tea. The tea comes from the same plant as black, green and oolong tea, but is harvested before the leaves have fully opened. Of all the tea varieties, it is the least processed and is not fermented, giving it high levels of catechins, or antioxidants.
For Schamisso, who was working in public relations at the time, the information began to take shape as a potential business. “I said to myself, ‘Here’s a market opportunity. No one is making a white tea in the beverage business,’” he says.
He put together a business plan, quit his job and set out in 2005 to produce a bottled white tea. Schamisso bottled 6,000 cases of tea before he had any customers, and took to the streets with his product. “I went up and down the street and hit the top places in Manhattan — high-end specialty stores and natural stores. I just sold the product door to door like every other young startup in the beverage business seems to do.”
Hoofing it through Manhattan might seem like a footloose way to do business, but the decision to target the health food and specialty markets was deliberate. The company’s research included demographic studies on aging baby boomers and their desire for healthy products. “Never in the United States has there been a time when people were more concerned with their health,” Schamisso says. “The studies on tea folded so nicely into the demographic … from the beginning, that was our goal.”
Another aspect of the product that fit the health trend was the decision to keep Inko’s calorie count on the low end. Initially, the goal was to replicate the flavor of the couple’s homemade tea, which was sweetened with a high-intensity sweetener. But targeting the natural foods channel would require a different sweetener, and they experimented with a number of options to get the right profile.
“We just refined her stovetop version, and refined and refined and refined until we found a product we thought we could sell,” Schamisso says. “I tested everything from beet sugar to evaporated cane juice and stevia. We landed on fructose crystals, which lucky for us, turns out to be an all-natural, low-glycemic sweetener.”
Inko’s teas have 56 calories per 16-ounce bottle, and the company has two unsweetened zero-calorie varieties. The sweetened line consists of Original, Honeydew, Blueberry, White Peach, Apricot, Cherry Vanilla and Lychee flavors. Unsweetened varieties include Hint O’Mint and Honeysuckle.
Schamisso considers Inko’s low calorie count to be one of the product’s main differentiators from the competition. “Some of these companies that are bigger than ours still don’t get it,” he says. “This is a healthy tea, so why are you going to throw in 120 to 140 calories per serving in something that’s supposed to be healthy?”
Early this year, Inko’s also rolled out new Inko’s White Tea Energy, an all-natural energy drink with tea-based caffeine.
“This was a year in the making,” Schamisso says. “We figured, if we could differentiate ourselves in the energy space like we did in the tea space, perhaps we’d have another winner in a growing market.”
The product contains 187 mg. of tea-based caffeine, and the company has tagged the product as “Jitter-Free” because it believes tea provides a more gentle form of caffeine. The product also is labeled as an “Adult Energy Drink” to define and highlight the target category.
The new energy drink currently is available in Southern California, Florida and along the East Coast. Inko’s core line is available on both coasts, as well as Canada and five Caribbean countries. Schamisso says California is the company’s fastest-growing market.
Furthering the cause
Most of Inko’s marketing consists of in-store sampling and retail promotions. “We focus on marketing at the store level,” Schamisso says. “It’s a great value for whatever money you spend on it.”
The company also contributes to philanthropic missions such as the Linus Pauling Institute, which is dedicated to the study of micronutrients and phytochemicals in human health. “They are a holistic research organization and they were the purveyors of white tea cancer research studies,” Schamisso says. “We figured early on, we’re not a $100 million company, but let’s be as philanthropic as we can with these guys because we really believe in the future of their work.”
The company also includes among the charities it supports the ASK Foundation, a non-profit organization that supports children with cancer and their families; the American Cancer Society; MakinitBig, an organization that supports the performing arts; and the Creative Coalition.
“We just don’t say no,” Schamisso says. “I don’t want to sound so altruistic. There is a marketing quotient for that as well — it’s good for us to get our tea in the hands of people no matter how we do it. And it does make us feel good.”
For now, Schamisso says Inko’s is dedicated to white tea, but the company may eventually branch out in other areas. No matter what new products the company develops, it plans to keep its focus on health. “Eventually, once we solidify the brand name Inko’s, we’ll branch out into healthy alternative products,” he says.