Bottoms Up!

With consumers craving soda substitutes, these entrepreneurs are serving up alternatives in the new-age beverage market:

For years, friends had raved about Calvita Frederick-Sowell’s homemade iced tea and urged her to start a business. After spending a rigorous 20 years as a general civil practice attorney, she realized it was time for a change. “Add to that the stories I had heard about some other entrepreneurs who had successfully brought their recipes to market, and it only increased my desire to want to bring my secret tea to market too,” she says.

So with $10,000 in personal savings and a special mix she had been making since her law school days at Howard University in the late 1970s, Frederick-Sowell started Magnolia Spice Teas (www.magnoliaspice.com), a ready-to-drink tea company, in November 1997. There were just two problems: she knew nothing about the beverage industry and even less about the basics of selling and marketing a business. But a phone call from the trade bureau of the RainbowPUSH Coalition, an organization to which she has belonged since becoming an attorney, provided some of the assistance she needed.

So Frederick-Sowell, 53, turned her kitchen into a testing lab and began working to transform her blend into a written recipe that could be mass-produced. She experimented with different types and quantities of sweeteners, additives, flavors, and other ingredients, including cinnamon, clove, licorice, hibiscus, and fruit extracts.

Frederick-Sowell wanted her line of teas to be made much like the way you make tea at home. To achieve that real home-brewed taste, she decided to work with a tea company to transfer her formula into tea bags that would ultimately be used in the production process. But opting not to work with a food scientist or beverage chemist, she had no one to professionally critique her taste profile–that is until she met Michele Hoskins, owner of specialty syrup company Michele Foods, through a close mutual friend.

Frederick-Sowell hired Hoskins as a consultant, working with her twice a week on product development, packaging, product names, and a logo, which she protected through a trademark. To obtain the business basics she was lacking, Frederick-Sowell enrolled in an entrepreneurial program offered by the Women Business Development Center, a local organization.

As with many new beverage makers, one of her biggest challenges was finding a co-packer that worked with small quantities. Frederick-Sowell needed a production run of only 1,000 gallons or about 17,000 bottles of tea, but many of the bottling plants she contacted would run no less than 1 million bottles. Then there was the issue of making the tea from tea bags, a process that was not patentable and was considered unconventional by beverage industry standards.

“Since our teas are brewed from real tea bags as opposed to the syrup and water concoction or pre-powdered mix used by much of my competition, no one would brew it for me at first,” she says. “I approached probably 10 to 15 bottling plants and all of them told me that they didn’t want to be bothered because if the tea bags broke during the process it would mess up their equipment

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