Brewing Success: The Booming Business of Yaupon Brothers American Tea
Not even saltwater can kill Florida’s native yaupon tree.
That’s the first thing Bryon White of New Smyrna Beach noticed as he ventured out after a hurricane blasted through the area in 2011: A solo tree standing amongst salt-battered, dead vegetation.
He couldn’t help but be amazed: “This green plant was standing there – it just didn’t care. I thought it was a really fascinating plant.”
Bryon began to research the plant, learning that the yaupon is a fast-growing evergreen shrub native to the southeast. It is the only caffeinated plant species in North America and was used by indigenous peoples in rituals.
At first, he was skeptical it could be edible.
“I thought, “This stuff must taste like crap if no one has done something with it,” he joked. “I found a couple of videos on YouTube of people making tea from leaves. At the time, there were no commercial products available. I made some products and I forced them on pretty much everyone I could. Everyone liked it. Nobody said it was gross; nobody got sick.”
Despite not having a business degree or restaurant experience, Bryon got his brother, Kyle White, on board to start a tea company to introduce the world to 100% American Yaupon tea. Their goal? To make delicious tea from a native plant all while keeping a low carbon footprint — a business trait not many tea companies are known for due to much of it being imported from overseas.
Now, in their Edgewater, Florida, facility, each leaf is hand-plucked, dried or fire-roasted, graded and milled and hand-packed. Nothing is outsourced, keeping the company greener than most.
“We really think the food system in America is messed up and could be a lot better than it is,” he explains. “We think growing more indigenous tea products is part of the solution to that. When you make food products from something that’s native, it takes a lot less input to get it to thrive.”
The duo’s tea company has been featured in Bon Appétit magazine and has retail partnerships spanning from Whole Foods to Walmart.
“Honestly, what I love the most about these partnerships is to see how these giant companies are willing to take a chance on the little guy,” says Kyle White. It’s a truly surreal feeling to think about us slinging tea at the farmers’ market to being on the shelf at some of the world’s biggest retailers. Teenage me would have never believed it.”
Because of its wild success, the company isn’t just in the hands of the two brothers. Now it takes about 12 employees to keep the operation successfully producing popular flavors like lavender coconut and American green teas.
It hasn’t always been an easy road, though.
The brothers spent a year securing their first big commercial launch through Cost Plus World Market. That was March 2020 — the month when everything in the world came to a screeching halt — and nearly every business temporarily or permanently shuttered due to the pandemic.
The brothers had just shipped inventory on net 60 terms, and two weeks after they launched, all the stores in the nation closed. With $100,000 invested and no idea when the funds would be theirs, Bryon White recalled it as a “scary time” for the tea company.
“Luckily, they [Cost Plus World Market] did not go out of business, and we got paid; they made good on their commitments,” he says. “When we got that money, we pivoted really hard into e-commerce. We needed to meet our customers where they were — and they were at home. We totally rebuilt our website and focused heavily on e-commerce. That was really a good move.”
But after the storm comes the calm. In 2021, the brothers launched inside of Whole Foods nationwide.
It’s been a worthy partner for the tea brothers. In fact, Whole Foods recently listed the tea company at the top spot of its 2023 food trends list.
When the duo isn’t ranking number one on lists and being profiled in top food magazines, they’re dedicating their time and efforts to giving back to the world, too.
Recently, they added to their Chari-Tea line that offers proceeds to United Help Ukraine and other non-profits. They also hire second-chance workers by not conducting background checks and believe in giving those with a criminal record an opportunity to earn a living wage. Their company donates 5% of online sales to North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems (NĀTIFS), an organization dedicated to addressing the health and economic crises that impact Native communities by re-establishing Native foodways.
At the end of the day, the brothers are proud of their tea but know it’s a drop in the bucket when it comes to major sustainability changes as a nation. For right now, though, they’ll keep making tea and doing what they can.
“It’s small and meaningful changes that need to occur,” says Bryon White.“ You either find people who know how to do it or find people to do it for you [when it comes to business]. It’s been a long learning curve. We’ve had to evolve along the way.”