The health beverage shelf just got a little more crowded. Normally we’d be wary of yet another label to decipher, but we’re excited for this one. Not only is Topos Teas a fairly digestible product, so to speak—a prebiotic tea with a few comprehensible ingredients like rooibos, dried mango, chamomile—but it’s born and brewed here in New Jersey. (Prebiotics are the food consumed by probiotics, live bacteria that work in your digestive system.)
The caffeine-free cold brew tea is the brainchild of Kayvon Jahanbakhsh and Mike Lombardo, former high school and college classmates turned business partners, who transformed a class project at Rowan University into a bottle on the shelf at Whole Foods. The story of Topos actually began with a diagnosis: Jahanbakhsh was on the swim team at Montclair State when he was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis. A few careful experiments in home remedies led to a tea formulation that not only helped Jahanbakhsh get well, it launched him and Lombardo on a high-speed journey into the retail beverage market (they just rocketed from eight to 22 stores, including Whole Foods stores in New Jersey and Pennsylvania).
We recently caught up with Kayvon and Mike after a day of deliveries to ask how they went from class project to overwhelmingly successful product to the secret to getting onto Whole Foods shelves (hint: a lot of emailing).
Table Hopping: Had either of you had experience in the beverage industry prior to this?
Kayvon Jahanbakhsh: No experience whatsoever.
Mike Lombardo: Essentially we were just using Topos as a class project.
TH: Kayvon, is it true you started brewing teas like this after a diagnosis?
KJ: I was going to school at Montclair, swimming collegiately and I was diagnosed with Ulcerative Colitis in 2015. I lost 40 pounds. Which—that’s like a leg! It’s a lot of weight for me. So I had to come home [to Blackwood], take time off school. I made myself bona fide gastroenterologist. I was trying probiotics, prebiotics, anything to help with stomach aches. And I discovered tea!
I was using different ingredients like green rooibos, which is good anti-inflammatory for the digestive system. Also ginger and calendula. I researched a lot through Google. I went to a lot of naturopaths, who pushed me toward those ingredients as well.
TH: Mike, how did you get involved?
MJ: Throughout college, and maybe even in late high school, Kayvon and I had been throwing around business ideas. By the time Kayvon lost 40 pounds, I had sort of gained it! Kayvon likes to say I was going out every day of the week that ends in “y.” I was living college life to my fullest, but it wasn’t so great physically. So we started working out together, getting back into shape. And Kayvon shared some of his habits with me. One day he shared a tea he’d cold-brewed. At the time, I hated everything about tea. I couldn’t drink it. But I was like “Wow. I like this!” So we had this idea, like, “Hey, let’s just bottle it.” We ended up deciding we’d use it for certain projects in school.
TH: It seems like school was a natural incubator?
ML: Absolutely. I used it for two or three classes that semester, as did Kayvon. By spring of 2018 we won the New Venture competition at Rowan. That was validation. Then we started pursuing this thing for real.
KJ: Before that, we didn’t have resources. Now we had $4,000 we’d just won in the competition. We started our own formulation and came up with a minimum viable concept, paid a graphic designer, and just went from there.
TH: What’s in that basic formulation?
KJ: We’ve always used green rooibos as a base with calendula, chamomile, and roasted chicory root. Roasted chicory makes the herbal teas taste stronger. I discovered it on a trip to New Orleans with my mom. La Colombe in Philly uses chicory in their coffee. And I was using different local honeys. This is also where cold brewing came from. Cold brewing the teas makes them a little softer, a bit more well-rounded.
TH: You originally launched without prebiotics, but now that’s a definitive aspect of your brand. How did that change come about?
KJ: We had soft-launched with with Rastelli Market in the fall of 2018 and then in some Whole Foods locations. We were trying to find what people wanted, what they needed. One of our biggest customers from a Whole Foods in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania. She was buying 19 bottles at a time. We wanted to know why she was buying that many. She said she likes it for her stomach and drinks it to make her feel better and we realized, yeah, that’s our market. We’re not just another cold brew tea. So we relaunched this a year later in October 2019, a year after our soft launch at Rastelli.
TH: So the brand is relaunched as prebiotic officially?
ML: We actually only got the new bottles [with “prebiotic” on them] two weeks ago.
TH: And just for those of us a bit overwhelmed with the terminology—what are prebiotics?
KJ: Probiotics are live bacteria that work in your digestive system. Prebiotics are the food that probiotics eat. Any kind of herb—things like chicory root, calendula, herbal teas can help with that. It’s helping keep your microbiome happy.
TH: What advice do you have for a young entrepreneur who might think Whole Foods is a reach? Can you just walk in the door?
KJ: It did seem like a long shot! But we literally just went into a Whole Foods and pitched to their buyer. He said something like “We can’t get into the store right now but I can introduce you to the guys on the regional team.” Mike and I kept emailing them, like nonstop, and finally, all of a sudden, they were like “Alright, we’ll try you out in one store.”
TH: As for those products, you have the two flavors, Zing of Ginger and Mellow Mango. Anything else on the horizon?
KJ: We’re working on two right now. Are we able to say which?
ML: Let’s just say one is a berry flavor. and the other is a very popular tart flavor. They should come out in late April or early May if things go smoothly.
KJ: 2020 will be busy. We’re trying to expand into a distributor. We want to be in 150 stores by the end of the year.
TH: Do you still drink the tea?
KJ: Mike and I always drink it. In the middle of the day, we’ll have a “brew break.” We’re always making our teas, since our bottles are so expensive. But we can take the ingredients and make it ourselves.
ML: I do like to drink the bottles. I give them to my friends so I can sneak some that way. But yeah, we can’t crack open a bottle anytime we want!