Seth Goldman Goes 'Back Into The Iced Tea World' With New Brand Just Ice Tea - Exclusive Interview

As Mashed reported in an exclusive interview earlier in 2022, in May, Coca-Cola decided to discontinue its long-standing tea brand, Honest Tea. The announcement came as a shock to original Honest Tea founder, Seth Goldman, who gave the brand its start in the late 1990s. In our May interview, he spoke to Mashed about the important role Honest Tea played in both consumers' and agricultural producers' lives, as well as the void that would now be felt in the marketplace — and how this void inspired him to create a new tea line with much of the same team that helped start Honest Tea.

This new tea line — christened Just Ice Tea — launched in September 2022 with six different tea varieties, including berry hibiscus herbal, honey green, Moroccan mint, original green, peach oolong, and half-tea half-lemonade. We caught up with Goldman again to discuss what Honest Tea fans can expect from Just Ice Tea, what the new name means, how the two brands differ, and his plans for the future.

What to expect from Just Ice Tea

First of all, tell me why it was important to you to re-enter the tea space after Honest Tea's discontinuation earlier in the year.

I had assumed that I wasn't going back into the iced tea world. Once we had sold, I basically wasn't looking back. It was a successful transition to Coca-Cola. I had stayed there for eight years afterward to make sure that the brand was secure, and then I had gone off and [started] this new company, Eat the Change, and was focused on that.

But when I learned that Honest Tea was being discontinued, my first reaction was shock and sadness and disappointment. I took a lot of those feelings and put them into a LinkedIn post that received this amazing response — over a million views and thousands of comments and responses. That helped me realize that what we had built with Honest Tea meant a lot to a lot of people, including our suppliers. Some were just going to be sad to miss the tea, but some were going to be economically impacted, like our tea garden suppliers and our other partners.

I started to get approached by other companies, friends of mine, who said, "Hey, we'd be happy to go launch a new tea, and you could be the face of it or help us do it." I realized if that's going to happen, we should be the ones doing it, because my team and I at Eat the Change — there [are] 16 of us, and nine of us were all part of Honest Tea before — have tons of experience and excitement and passion for it. We felt like this is something that should be done.

For fans of the original Honest Tea, what can they expect from Just Ice Tea? How similar or different are the two products?

It is quite similar. It's funny ... people who love certain varieties, like the Moroccan mint or [half-tea, half-lemonade], are going to feel like they're very much seeing that same taste palate. But there are some new elements to the recipes that make it have a cleaner taste, a sharper taste.

We also eliminated organic sugar cane from the recipes because we have a commitment at Eat the Change to avoid using the six most common crops, of which sugar cane is one. We instead use organic fair-trade honey or organic fair-trade agave. [There are] some tweaks, but for the most part, it will be very recognizable and enjoyable to the Honest Tea fan, while also adding some new things to bring in more people.

Just the good stuff

Can you expand a little bit more on that choice to use the agave or honey instead of the cane sugar? Why is that an important element?

At Eat the Change, it's all about planet-friendly food. One of the things that's important in [order] for our planet to be resilient is to have more biodiversity, both in our diets [and] for people, and also ... to avoid creating monocultures. It turns out there are six crops that are responsible for 57% of all agricultural output. It's soy, corn, wheat, potatoes, rice, and sugar cane. We said we are going to avoid those ingredients in all of our recipes.

Initially, that was a challenge, because when I told my co-founder, Chef Spike Mendelsohn, we were doing that, he was like, "Those ingredients are in every kind of food." But he's a talented chef and a creative, and for him, it was great. He participated in "Top Chef," and he's like, "This is the Chef Challenge, where it's like 'Here's your box, here's what you can use.'"

For Honest Tea, a big thing was the commitment to fair trade and organic. Has that changed at all with Just Ice Tea?

No — it's doubled down. Everything is still fair trade and organic, but with Honest Tea, when we did use agave or honey, it wasn't fair trade, and with Just Ice Tea it is.

Tell me a little bit about the name. How did you guys come up with Just Ice?

This was [from] my Honest Tea co-founder, Barry [Nalebuff], who is on our board and part of the whole effort. We knew Eat the Change was not the right descriptor. It wasn't going to make sense, so we had to find a name that did work. We spent basically a weekend going back and forth with all types of names, and we had some fun ones, but some of them were taken [or] some of them didn't feel exactly right. Barry came up with it, and when he said it, I was like, "That's it." Just like when he had told me [the name for] Honest Tea, I was like, "Oh, that's perfect."

For us, "just" speaks, most importantly, to the working conditions. Fair trade is not just about making sure everyone is paid a fair wage, but that there's no child labor and also that a portion of the sales goes back to the community for them to invest in their priorities as they deem them, whether that's schools or hospitals or infrastructure. Then, of course, it speaks to the approach to the environment.

Finally, it speaks to the taste. The taste is really just the taste of tea, along with also [what we call] "just sweet enough." It's a super clean taste.

You're launching with the six flavors. Which one is your favorite?

I've been drinking the [half-tea, half-lemonade], and it is so good. I really enjoy it, but I can enjoy any of them at any time. They're each a unique and a specific taste, [but] they are based on what were the top-selling varieties at Honest Tea. It's not going to be a surprise that we're leading with these proven recipes for starters.

Bringing the team back together

Honest Tea's departure created this void for the organic farmers. Do you feel Just Ice Tea is going to be able to fill that void for them?

Well, we certainly hope so. We're not going to replicate that volume initially, but it's certainly the goal to do that. We'll be working hard to make that the case. We're working very much with the same gardens, and some new gardens as well.

Our suppliers were really shaken [by Honest Tea's departure]. As I said, we were super disappointed about the news, but I got this email from one of our main suppliers. He was — more than upset — concerned about their livelihoods. They made these decisions to invest in this approach, so it was a real blow to them. It wasn't just about the economic impact, though that was true, but it's also this perception that if this big company, Coca-Cola, moves away from this, does that undermine what we'd be doing? Does that say that big companies aren't going to embrace this approach?

The thing that's so striking, and I'm hearing this time and time again, is it wasn't that the market wasn't there. That's what's so ironic about this. Usually, when a brand folds up shop, it's because there's no market for it, but Honest Tea still is the top-selling bottled tea in the natural channel. That's a channel that's continuing to grow. It is not the case that this is a failed concept.

If we go back to Kodak or whatever — okay, yeah. People stopped needing to have film. But tea is still the world's second most popular beverage, second only to water. Tea has and is known to have all these healthy properties. It isn't like the category has been abandoned by consumers; it's just the case that a big company looked at numbers and impact in a different way, and according to its calculations, it didn't make sense to keep going with this brand. Obviously, we don't agree with that thesis.

Eat the Change raised about $15 million to launch Just Ice Tea. What do you feel that number says about your investors' and your stakeholders' confidence in the brand?

[There is] a great deal of confidence in our team and in the opportunity. The natural channel is still an area of growth and opportunity, but it takes the right approach and the right kind of leadership. Our team is super proven. Between over a hundred years of experience selling tea and also the other work that we've done — not just what I went to go do after launching Honest Tea ... [but] my other team members have gone and built other brands — it's a reuniting of the ... I don't call it the Justice League, but reuniting of the team. We've all gone out, had new experiences, and brought it back to build this, and it's super fun and exciting to have such an energized team doing this.

What's next?

Do you feel like somewhere down the line there might be an acquisition from a large entity like Coca-Cola? Or do you plan to keep Just Ice Tea under the Eat the Change umbrella?

I can't even contemplate that now. I'm just focused on creating something valuable. That's always been my approach. I've never built anything designed to sell or go public. I build something valuable and focus on that. If you do, the right opportunities will come for your investors and for your team and for your brand. But that is the focus. I've got to make sure, given what happened with Honest Tea, we build something that is unstoppable.

At this point, are there any plans for new flavors or wider distribution? Is there anything new people can look out for down the line?

We're going to expand for sure. At this point, we've got to get this to market, which is certainly what we're focused on, but we will absolutely be continuing to innovate, not just with tea varieties but also on other packages. We're starting in the glass bottle, which is our classic [and] where we started, but we'll expand to other packages. I don't expect us to go into the plastic bottle, which is something we did with Honest Tea, but given the company name and what we're focused on, I don't feel like plastic is as good an option as the other ones we'll be considering.

Just Ice Tea is available first at Sprouts Farmers Market nationally, and PLNT Burger locations in New York City. Other retailers set to carry Just Ice Tea include but are not limited to: Whole Foods Markets, Hy-vee, Town & Country, Central Market, New Seasons Market, Erewhon, MOM's, Roots, Yes! Natural Markets, Giant Foods, PCC, Dawson's, Market of Choice, ION Group, Oliver's, Rainbow Grocery, The Food Bin, Ellwood Thompson's, and The Common Market.

This interview was edited for clarity.