By GREGORY ZELLER //
From the When You’re Hot, You’re Hot file comes the PeKANT Tea Co., a sort of Nestea plunge for the hot-pepper set.
Cofounders Michael Circosta and Michael Romano, both longtime regional sales reps for Massachusetts-based medical-device titan Boston Scientific, are now about three years into their spicy entrepreneurial adventure, which crosses its teas with molten-hot habaneros – adding a tongue-numbing, surprisingly refreshing kick to the traditional sweet tea.
It sounds counterintuitive – an iced tea so spicy you might reach for a water chaser – but it’s actually quite invigorating, according to Circosta, who considers the Franken-tea creations to be in line with popular culinary trends.
“It’s something that’s really ingrained in other cultures and has really been adopted by [American] culture over the last 10 or 20 years,” he told Innovate LI. “Spicy foods, a real Latin influence – we both liked that.”
The two Michaels also liked (and still do) their roles at cutting-edge Boston Scientific, though they were “kind of at points in our careers where we were looking at the next 10 years and what we wanted to do with our lives,” Circosta noted.
“I came at it from always wanting to start a business, to think outside the box and put together something new,” he added. “[Romano] shared with me some of the things he had been playing around with, and that’s how it started.”
What Romano had been playing around with was infusing his own homemade brews with spices known better as piquant staples of Mexican food. Much to his own surprise, Circosta found the concoctions pleasing in more ways than one.
“We’re both health-conscious and we both love tea,” he said. “For me, looking to do something different and start a new chapter, it seemed like a perfect fit.”
PeKANT Tea’s product line would evolve slowly – “literally, one pot at a time,” Circosta noted, with the partners “making a batch and then tweaking it, for months, until we had something we thought was right.”
Officially incorporated in January of 2016 after months of taste-testing in an Amityville kitchen, PeKANT Tea – a play on “picante” (as in “spicy”) and clear evidence of “us trying to sound hipper than we actually are,” according to Circosta – has quickly found a following.
Circosta credited the startup’s participation in Taste NY, Albany’s push to promote New York-made food and beverages through a statewide network of point-of-purchase locations. Connecting with Taste NY has been the fledgling company’s biggest score to date: PeKANT Tea is already available at Taste NY stores along the Long Island Expressway and in Penn Station, and as of this week at the Taste NY Café inside Manhattan’s Jacob K. Javits Convention Center.
The product line – including pineapple, mango and pear flavors, with a passion fruit blend coming this summer – also graces a number of retail shelves, including Rockaway Park’s Fat Cardinal Bakery and the Manhattan artisan-food mecca Chelsea Market Baskets.
PeKANT Tea might not have lasted long enough to make those marks if the cofounders hadn’t sprung to action last year, when what Circosta described as a “production snafu” with the startup’s original bottler nearly sank the enterprise. Shifting gears, CEO Circosta and VP of Operations Romano moved their operation into Stony Brook University’s food-friendly Business Incubator at Calverton, where they now handle all production and bottling themselves.
They’ve also had to overcome other challenges familiar to many first-time entrepreneurs, including some tough early decisions on their exact target audience.
“The caffeine-and-chili pepper perspective gives it a nice, natural energy boost,” Circosta noted. “Black tea, caffeine and chili is a nice stimulant that will perk you right up, but in the right way – not like a Red Bull or a Monster.
“Early on, we even kicked around the idea of going the ‘energy drink’ route.”
But when they incorporated 30 months ago, the duo decided to target the soft drink market – in an innovative, artisan way.
“The real idea was to make something we were comfortable giving our kids,” Circosta said. “We wanted to give them something that was more than just water or the artificial sweetener of the month, whether it’s Stevia or whatever they’re going to find out six months from now causes cancer.
“We wanted a product that was unique and all-natural,” he added. “We’re not playing around with it. This is just how it comes out of the ground.”
So far, so good: Not only has PeKANT Tea found its way into Taste NY and a handful of brick-and-mortar retailers, but its online sales are climbing, thanks largely to Instagram and Facebook marketing efforts managed by JJ Villani, who joined the team last year as VP of marketing.
Villani, a digital marketing and public relations veteran, “really has a handle on the social media opportunities that businesses have to be in tune with today,” Circosta noted, and he’s one of the reasons the up-and-coming company has already matched its 2017 revenues, on a pace to “triple or quadruple” its annual revenues this year, according to Circosta.
Of course, the cofounders still hawk their spicy-sweet sips at public events. PeKANT Tea was at a hot sauce festival in March at the Brooklyn Expo Center and at last week’s Taste the East End event at the Long Island Aquarium and Exhibition Center, and is “really looking forward” to Chile Pepper Festival 2018, according to Circosta, coming this September to Brooklyn Botanic Garden.
Between now and then, the company will introduce that passion fruit flavor. The cofounders are also preparing a more traditional lemon-tea flavor and “kicking around” customer feedback suggesting an even spicier turn.
“At the end of the day, this is an iced tea and meant to be refreshing,” Circosta noted. “But we’ve had some feedback suggesting we could even kick it up a notch.”
PeKANT Tea will make a decision on that by the end of the summer, the CEO said. For now, the three-man show is focused on spreading the word about its existing product line and where to find it, and otherwise “learning how to maximize our opportunities,” according to Circosta.
“We’re like many entrepreneurs, learning as we go,” he said. “At this point, our goal is to grow to the point where we can have conversations with other potential partners.
“Our initial plan is to build it and sell it,” Circosta added. “But for three guys with jobs and multiple kids and families, I think we’re happy with where we are.”
PeKANT Tea Co.
What’s It? Habanero-infused spicy iced teas
Brought To You By: Cofounders Michael Circosta and Michael Romano
All In: $25,000, self-invested, for business formation, early marketing and basically proving that hot pepper-infused iced teas isn’t completely bonkers
Status: “Naturally sweet, with a little heat,” and slowly spreading across Greater New York