Food & Bev

Seth Goldman reflects on one year back in the tea biz after Honest Tea’s discontinuation

There’s “a lot less fear,” as he establishes a new brand as Honest Tea’s “successor.”
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Seth Goldman (L) and Spike Mendelsohn (R). Eat the Change

· 4 min read

When we (Erin here, hi!) spoke with Seth Goldman, it was on a notable anniversary—one year since he announced his return to the beverage business, one that he’d thought he’d put behind him forever after selling his brand, Honest Tea, to Coca-Cola in 2011.

That was until Coca-Cola decided to discontinue the iced-tea brand (excluding the Honest Kids line) on May 23, 2022, aiming to double down on its other ready-to-drink teas, Gold Peak and Peace Tea.

Goldman co-founded the low-sugar iced tea brand in 1998, with a focus on organic, fair trade, and sustainable sourcing. The beverage giant acquired Honest Tea in 2011 after taking a minority stake in the brand in 2008, and scaled it to $500 million in revenue, distributed to over 150,000 retail locations.

After Coca-Cola’s announcement, Goldman took to LinkedIn to call the move “a gut punch.” He told Retail Brew that he and the Honest Tea team “spent a week mourning and just being sad and despondent,” he said. “We got just so much feedback from suppliers and customers and consumers who are like, ‘Oh, we want you to do something.’” He said his tea suppliers wondered if investing in organic and fair trade was “all just a failed experiment.” But Goldman wouldn’t accept that.

On June 6, he decided to re-enter the iced-tea business with Honest Tea co-founder Barry Nalebuff, creating what he would soon reveal was Just Ice Tea, a new brand from Goldman’s food company Eat the Change. It bears the same values—and the original bottle—as Honest Tea, going from conception to store shelves in just three months and reaching the level of success in year one that Honest Tea had almost a decade in, Goldman said.

Goldman shared how starting Just Iced Tea compared to building the original half-a-billion-dollar tea business, and where it’s heading next.

Tea-L-C: Starting Honest Tea from scratch 25 years ago was a bit of a different experience than building Just Ice Tea in that there was “a lot less fear” and “a lot more joy” this time around, Goldman said. It also had a little more funding (Eat the Change raised $14.5 million to scale Just Ice Tea last August).

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“[With Honest Tea,] it was scary. We were launching, [but] we were also creating a category,” he said. “I didn’t know the beverage business. There was so much risk and so much unknown. This time around, we know the beverage business…and the category is established…There wasn’t a market for less sweet tea, but now there is.”

Goldman said the category is actually “less competitive” than it was in the early days, with Honest Tea now gone and many other brands losing distribution during the pandemic. Brands like Snapple and Nantucket Nectars have also switched their packaging to plastic, making Just Ice Tea one of the only brands of glass bottled premium teas.

  • It was easy for the brand to build out its supply chain because so many players had left during the pandemic as the glass supply chain broke down, Goldman added.

After all this time, some things have remained (somewhat) the same. Just Ice Tea is following a similar playbook to Honest Tea by starting in the natural retail channel. Many of the same retail buyers are still around, and several former Honest Tea distributors and tea suppliers are now run by the children of the people Goldman first worked with.

Breaking the ice: Just Ice Tea is still working on converting former Honest Tea drinkers through sampling, and establishing itself as the brand’s “successor,” which Goldman said remains the biggest challenge.

“We’re still introducing ourselves; most people still don’t know about us,” he said. Though some people who come across the brand do have a light bulb “Wait—is this…?” moment, including actor Jesse Eisenberg, who Goldman said stumbled upon a Just Ice Tea demo in New York City and shared his love for Honest Tea.

Now, Goldman says Just Ice Tea the best-selling iced tea brand in Whole Foods and in the whole natural channel, and is making its way into conventional grocery with placements at Giant Food and Safeway. As it’s entering its first “iced tea season” (AKA summer), he said he sees a strong runway for continued growth.

“Those opportunities are gonna come pretty quickly, because that was a national customer base that Honest Tea had, and most customers still are thirsty.”

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Retail Brew delivers the latest retail industry news and insights surrounding marketing, DTC, and e-commerce to keep leaders and decision-makers up to date.