Rock Newman admits he was reluctant to try Hi-T — hemp iced tea — when he was introduced to it on a trip to Bermuda three years ago. The aroma was intriguing enough to draw him over to a stranger selling the brew, but he wondered about the taste.
“It was so unique and didn’t taste like anything I’d ever had before,” said Newman, the former manager of heavyweight boxer Riddick Bowe. “It was such a refreshing drink.”
Newman was so taken with the beverage that he reached out to the creator, Paul Tisera, in Amsterdam with a proposition that they go into business together. The two teamed up, developed a marketing strategy and set out to get Hi-T on store shelves.
This month they signed a distribution deal with Temple Hills-based B.K. Miller Co. that will make Hi-T available at more than 4,000 grocery, convenience and health food stores in the Washington area.
“We have a tiger by the tail here,” Newman said. “B.K. Miller is probably the largest distributor in this region. And it was really important for me to introduce the product in this market because D.C. is home.”
Hi-T only hit shelves in September, but already is available in 400 stores in the region. Though the company is based in Las Vegas, the first bottles of Hi-T were available on the College Park campus of the University of Maryland.
Newman, who splits his time between D.C. and Las Vegas, said the company’s seven-member team has been busy fielding calls from distributors, who heard about the drink by word of mouth.
It would be hard for any product with a big cannabis leaf on the packaging not to get noticed (this drink will not get you buzzed).
“There is such an incredible misconception about the hemp plant. It’s not more dangerous than a potato,” Newman said. “By itself it’s very nutritious and healthy.”
Hemp tea —like bee pollen and quinoa before it — is all the rage among health food aficionados who claim it can, among other things, lower high cholesterol and reduce arthritis. To drive home the healthy angle of Hi-T, Newman and Tisera applied for and received organic certification for the product through the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Ready-to-drink tea sales rang in at $5.3 billion in 2010, compared with $4.8 billion a year earlier, according to Beverage Marketing Corp. Sales climbed throughout the recession while other beverage segments witnessed declines.
While Newman said he believes Hi-T has gotten off to a great start, it is coming up against the Snapples and Honest Teas of the world. Making the drink profitable in such a saturated niche of the market may prove challenging.
“The battle for any new beverage is won on an account-by-account basis,” said David Miller, president of B.K. Miller. “Rock’s challenge is creating the kind of excitement about the product that I know he is capable of doing.”