An interview with Mario Leite: Founder of Tea-rrific! Ice Cream

Have you ever dreamed of working in the food industry? How about owning your ice cream company? Well, Mario Leite of Tea-rrific! Ice Cream took the plunge and now runs a very unique ice cream company that is made up of an array of all-natural, tea-infused flavors. He has been able to get his product in huge grocers like Whole Foods, Shop Rite, Stop & Shop, and more. 

Read ahead to learn everything you need to know about his experience!

• What did you do before you started Tea-rrific! Ice Cream?

I was an investment banker in New York City for 6 years, specializing in the Biotech and Pharmaceutical industry.

• What prompted you to take the jump into starting this?

When I was let go from my investment banking job in August 2011, I decided to take some time off and spend the rest of that summer with my wife and kids. One day I was craving a Thai iced tea. After drinking it, I commented to my wife as I had done several times before that it would make a great ice cream flavor. We both agreed, so I dusted off the ice cream maker my wife had bought me for my birthday years prior but never had a chance to use due to my work hours as a banker. I made the Thai Iced Tea flavor and it was very good. It had great flavor with notes that developed with each bite and a refreshing quality that I had never experienced in any ice cream on the market, tea flavored or otherwise. Next, I decided to make ice cream after my other favorite tea, Earl Grey, and a hint of vanilla. The reception was unanimously positive! Even my wife who is not a sweets or ice cream person was impressed with the unique flavor and refreshing, clean-off-the-palate finish. Right around the same time I read an article in Family Circle that was focused on the increasing trend of tea-infusions in foods, liquors etc. As far as we could tell there was no brand anywhere in the world taking advantage of tea as an exclusive ingredient to flavor ice cream! I felt that there was a place in the market for our ice cream and that the consumer base was ready for the distinctly delicious ice cream experience we could provide; offering unique flavors, a creamy texture and a refreshing finish. We came up with the name, Tea-rrific! Ice Cream and launched the company. I always had an entrepreneurial streak in me and it was always a dream of mine to build my own business. I had several ideas over the years, but as I did more research and got more feedback, I felt this was a brand and product that could be very successful and have both domestic and international appeal. I sat down with my wife and told her that I would like to start an artisanal, tea-infused ice cream company. Believing in me and the product, she was very supportive of this decision.

• What is the biggest obstacle you have had to overcome? Biggest success?

The biggest obstacle has been generating awareness and getting people to try our ice cream. We offer flavors that have never been done in ice cream before here in the U.S., so the majority of consumers are not familiar with what an Earl Grey ice cream will or should taste like for example. Or they have a preconception that tea in ice cream will not taste good, but we know once they try it, they will love it! Our biggest success has been growing the number of stores that carry our ice cream from 20 local markets in Connecticut, to over 400 locations across the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic and parts of the Midwest, including major retailers such as Whole Foods, ShopRite and Stop & Shop.

• How did you know which retailers and grocers you wanted to carry your product?

We knew we wanted to launch our line in the specialty and natural/organic stores given the high quality and clean label we offer. Shoppers in these channels are the early adopters of a product like ours. As we grew we knew we had to make an entry into the conventional markets where we could offer tremendous value and reach a broader audience to achieve the volume to make our brand sustainable. At the same time, the demographics of customers for all retailers, including conventional markets, have started to change, with shoppers looking for more natural products with cleaner labels and minimally processed ingredients.

• How did you get your product into stores?

At first it was me doing a lot of cold calling. While many stores were hesitant to try a new, unproven brand with such unique flavors, once they sampled it they almost always placed an order. Our success rate with buyers who tried the product was very high. Then we were picked up by a regional distributor that covered the NY metro area and that allowed us to increase the number of stores carrying us in the area surrounding New York City. Then, about 6mths into our retail market launch, we were picked up by Whole Foods which was a significant achievement for us and then King’s picked us up as well. About 2yrs into our company’s existence we hired a sales broker that has helped us get picked up by a number of key accounts such as Fairway, Mrs. Greens and more recently ShopRite. About 18mths ago we were picked up by Stop & Shop (about 30 locations) after the buyer tasted our product at the Fancy Food Show that is held in New York City.

• If you could give one piece of advice to your 19 year old self, what would it be?

Don’t be afraid to take risks and follow you passions.

• If you weren’t living in the United States, where would you be living?

Somewhere in Western Europe.

• What makes you, undeniably you?

My love for family and my passion for great food, travel, art and business. I am easy going and approachable, but competitive and persistent all at the same time. I have equally active creative and analytical sides of my brain, which sometimes can be distracting, but for the most part is an advantage. It allows me the flexibility to transition quickly from one function to the next and be productive, whether it be developing new flavor and product concepts or working on a sales or financing strategy.