Turning over new leaves
Dev ThimmisettyMercury Staff
A UTD alumnus and army veteran is expanding his new tea company that is focused on economic development in war-afflicted countries with the addition of products in local farmer’s markets and stores.
Brandon Friedman, the founder and CEO of Rakkasan Tea, launched a Kickstarter campaign for his venture last August. The company focuses on importing tea from war-afflicted countries, such as Rwanda, Nepal and Sri Lanka, to encourage economic recovery in these communities while also providing rare, organic tea to American consumers.
The name Rakkasan comes from the nickname of Friedman’s unit in the army. Business partner Terrence Kamauf also served in the same division. During his time serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, Friedman was introduced to hot tea. He said his upbringing in Louisiana frequently exposed him to iced tea, but he didn’t like it, so hot tea abroad was a pleasant novelty.
“Whenever we did business with the locals or anything like that, we would drink hot tea,” he said. “In America, we drink coffee, which is more of a solitary drink, but there, tea was much more of a social thing.”
After receiving his MPA from UTD in 2006, Friedman moved to Washington D.C. and stayed there for eight years working in politics as a General Deputy Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs in the Obama administration, as well as in corporate P.R. He said he moved back to Dallas last June after a change of heart.
“I wanted to do something more fun and rewarding and actually help make the world a better place,” he said. “So I came back to tea, and I moved back to Dallas.”
Friedman filed the paperwork for Rakkasan Tea Company in July of last year. After the Kickstarter campaign raised over $30,000, Friedman and his team went to work, identifying potential suppliers that could provide organic tea, while also maintaining standards of fair trade, ethics and sustainability.
“The whole idea behind it is to promote peace and economic development in countries that are recovering from war. We have seen the toil that war takes on communities,” he said. “At the same time, most imported tea comes from China or India, so we are bringing tea drinkers tea they typically don’t get to have.”
The tea estates the company partners with have to meet certain standards with regards to the way they produce the tea, as well as the ways in which workers get their fair share, Friedman said.
“The Sri Lankan tea estate really fits in with what we are trying to do. They are trying to take care of their employees, so they use a revenue-sharing system instead of just a profit-sharing system,” he said. “It’s organic, it’s sustainable and it’s really an example of what we are trying to do.”
Friedman said the tea community is spread out and interconnected across the world, so several networking connections have helped the company land suppliers in Vietnam and Laos, providing the latest additions to the product line.
“I was just reading an article online about a British guy in Vietnam who was giving a rundown of the tea market and the tea industry,” he said. “We’d been looking in Vietnam for about a year and couldn’t find anyone, so I just sent him an email, told him our story, video-called him from Dallas to Ho Chi Minh City, and long story short, he’s our supplier now.”
The interconnectivity of the international tea community has been crucial for the company, Friedman said.
“The British guy from Vietnam actually introduced me to a German woman … who does the same thing he does, but in Laos. She is now our supplier from Laos, and it’s really nice having these connections, especially because of the language barrier,” he said. “I do not speak those languages, so it would have been much harder if it hadn’t been for these individuals.”
In mid-March, the company achieved two important milestones — having orders shipped to all 50 states and also receiving its first international order from Iceland.
“Things are going well for a company of our age. We are still not profitable, but we are also less than a year old,” he said. “We are now in two stores in Deep Ellum and McKinney, and we also are also getting involved in farmers’ markets on Saturdays.”
Friedman said the hardest obstacle to overcome is spreading awareness of the company.
“Our biggest challenge has been letting people know we exist and what we offer,” he said. “Everyone who hears our story, it tends to resonate with them, so we’ve had no problem selling to people who know about it; it’s just that not very many people know about it.”
The company has not put any money into advertising, but after receiving favorable press in tea magazines and military publications, Friedman said the next step is likely going to be targeted social media marketing.
“What we really want to do is be part of the Dallas community,” he said. “We are really into that, and we want to be part of the fabric of this community, and of course represent this community as best as we can because we are an international business.”