Bottles of Joe Tea can be found in gourmet shops in Chile, in trendy houseware emporiums in Japan, and in general stores in Vermont. In the last two years, buyers from China, Korea, Indonesia, Brazil, Canada and Britain have come knocking. “We sell millions of bottles to thousands of accounts in numerous countries,” says Ann Prato, who founded the company with her husband, Steve, in Montclair in 1997. Yet until recently, Joe Tea, which comes in 16 flavors and has no artificial ingredients, has been difficult to find in, of all places, its home state.
The couple, both business-school grads, met 27 years ago and have worked together ever since. They began by designing T-shirts and nightwear in their basement. After Kohl’s picked up their products, they found themselves filling huge orders. But as retailers shifted to cheaper clothing suppliers overseas, the Pratos shifted too, launching Two Little Guys Pink Lemonade in 1996.
“Literally the first store we ever walked into to pitch our lemonade said, ‘That’s nice, but I sell about 10 times as much tea as lemonade,” says Ann. “The handwriting was on the wall day one.” On day two, figuratively speaking, they began to brainstorm a tea name and label. Joe, says Ann, is a common and easy-to-pronounce name around the world—they were already thinking big—“and everyone has a friend or an uncle named Joe. It has a pleasant connotation.” Not incidentally, it happens to be Steve’s father’s name and Steve’s middle name.
When he was trying to sell lemonade to convenience stores, Steve noticed that there always seemed to be a pickup truck or three parked in front. Wanting to suggest a roll-up-your-sleeves ruggedness with a hip, retro edge, the Pratos chose a drawing of a 1948 Dodge Power Wagon as their logo. (Ann says they have a customer who every year loads his Power Wagon with Joe Tea to sell at the National Dodge Power Wagon Rally.)
Joe made early inroads in Hoboken, at farm stands and down the Shore, but not until Steve drove a van full of Joe Tea to Vermont in 2001 did it become a hit. “New Jersey is a highly competitive retail market, densely populated, attractive for many distributors, but very cluttered and driven by promotions and price competition,” Ann observed in an e-mail. “Additionally, the market is influenced by advertising, something we were not in a position to do. Existing brands and distributors are very protective of their turf. Vermont, in contrast, was sparsely populated, less competitive, more welcoming to small companies…think Ben & Jerry’s. There were small, independent retailers operating sometimes century-old general stores, and our brand matched up very well with consumer attitudes in Vermont. It is there we gained traction for the brand and an understanding of how we could come back to our home market and succeed.”
Joe’s big break came in 2006, when a buyer for Whole Foods tasted the drinks in a cheese shop in Montclair and began offering Joe teas and potato chips in the upscale chain’s New York City stores. Now Joe Tea is sold in about 60 Whole Foods markets in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic. It is still a niche product, a little hard to find, but the Pratos like it that way.
At Tom Bailey’s Market in Spring Lake, Joe Tea sells more than any soft drink but bottled water, according to owner Chris D’Eufemia. Sales are also brisk at the Hoboken Farms sandwich shop in Summit, where owner Brad Finkel estimates he sells 75 to 80 cases a week. “It’s not a commodity product; you can’t get it just anywhere,” says Finkel, who also runs 30 farmer’s markets across New Jersey. “The label looks great, and the stuff inside is awesome.”