Kristina Tsipouras and Niari Keverian can fit up to 100 cases of Zoos, their new Greek iced tea, into Tsipouras’s Honda CRV. Through charm and grit, the two friends and business partners have managed to persuade 200 Bay State retailers, from Mom and Pops to Wegmans, to stock their drinks.
The local entrepreneurs, who launched in the spring, are on a mission to convince consumers that Zoos (pronounced Zeus, a play on the ruler of the Greek gods) is a healthy alternative to sodas and other sugary drinks. The tea, imported from northern Greece and based on a recipe by Tsipouras’s Yia Yia (grandmother), is brewed from whole leaves and comes in three flavors: Mountain Blend, peach, and lemon. “Unless a bottle says ‘real brewed’ it is powdered and processed,” Tsipouras says. “Most bottled teas use powdered tea.”
There’s a lot to like about Zoos with its clean, lightly sweet taste (it’s 50 calories) and price ($1.99 for a 16-ounce bottle). Tsipouras, 29, and Keverian, 30, share anecdotes that increase the brand’s charm: The millennials met one year ago and Zoos has a cameo in the upcoming Jim Carrey movie “Dumb and Dumber To.” The tea is also a 2014 Mass Challenge finalist for accelerator funding, announced in October. The young women have placed their tea in the marketplace but industry folks say the challenges ahead are daunting.
Ready-to-drink tea is a $4 billion-plus industry, says Jeffrey Klineman, editor at BevNet, a national media beverage company based in Watertown. Some brands are well known to consumers, from middle-brow AriZona Tea and Snapple to higher-end Honest and Sweet Leaf. Two pricier Boston brands to enter the market recently are Motto, a Japanese blend, and Evy Tea, which has a Chinese bent.
“Consumers are migrating away from traditional carbonated soft drinks and over the past decade one of the places they’ve really moved to is ready-to-drink tea,” Klineman says. “There’s certainly been room for a great many small regional tea companies.” What they need to do is differentiate themselves so consumers can identify with one brand, he says.
To watch Tsipouras and Keverian together is like observing close sisters. They met last summer at the International Entrepreneurship Center, a Newton incubator. Tsipouras, a former New York City wedding planner, had been developing her tea concept at her family’s Newton home for two years after visiting her grandparents in Thessaloniki, Greece. She was inspired by the staggering success of Greek yogurt.
Keverian was home in Medfield itching to find a project to occupy her time. She had been a brand manager at Concord-based Welch’s after graduating from the Babson College MBA program, but left the company following a car accident. The two women bonded over ambition and cultural affinities; Tsipouras is Greek and Keverian is Armenian.
“I keep telling people we’re yin and yang,” says Tsipouras. “I’m spiritually connected to the product because this was my Yia Yia’s recipe. I’m creative, but sometimes I try to take on too much and Niari brings me back.”
Most of the initial funding for the tea has come from family members, but one angel investor is also a mentor. Aram Hintlian, the former owner of Nutcracker Brands in Billerica, has guided the women on permitting and insurance, and has joined them in negotiations with distributors. “When I see someone young and willing to take a chance, then I’m willing to help,” says Hintlian, whose family attends the same church as Keverian’s. Even though 95 percent of startups don’t make it, he says, “that’s no reason not to go for it.”
Victoria Sassine, a Babson professor who works with Goldman Sachs in identifying promising entrepreneurs, is also a mentor. Tsipouras and Keverian think their consumers are moms and young people. “That’s crucial,” says Sassine. “They’re on Instagram and Facebook because they know that’s where their customer lives . . . They get it. They also have real entrepreneur spirit. Tea is not as sexy as Apple and working on the next iPhone, but this is their life right now and they’re giving it their all.”
To build a budget, the duo have entered Zoos in various entrepreneurial contests, such as Mass Challenge. In the meantime, they’re holding tastings in grocery stores, health clubs, and hotels.
Tsipouras’s Yia Yia, whose tea inspired Zoos, passed away in June. She told her granddaughter to focus more on finding a husband and less on tea.
Keverian has a similar story. “I showed my grandmother a bottle of Zoos and she said, ‘Dump Zoos. Find a boyfriend!’ ”
Zoos tea is available at Wegmans Chestnut Hill, 200 Boylston St., Chestnut Hill, and 9102 Shops Way, Northborough; and all Roche Bros. and Sudbury Farms stores.
Peggy Hernandez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.