Cold-steeped success

Cold-steeped success

With Topos Teas, business students hit the Whole Foods shelves
Marketing alumnus Mike Lombardo and finance major Kayvon Jahanbakhsh are the founders of Topos Teas, a new cold-steeped organic craft tea brand.

It was a big moment when their 12-ounce bottles of cold-steeped, cold-pressed organic craft tea landed on the shelves of Whole Foods Market last fall.

But, forward-thinking entrepreneurs that they are, Kayvon Jahanbakhsh and Mike Lombardo didn’t take time to celebrate.  Not even a little bit.

“It was scary for me. It was like, “Oh, we’re doing this,’” Jahanbakhsh, a senior finance major says of the moment Topos Teas, the tea brand he and Lombardo created, made it to the shelves of some Whole Foods, the nation’s ninth largest food retailer.

“It wasn’t a moment of, ‘We did it,’” adds Lombardo, a 2018 marketing alumnus. “It was more like, ‘We have so much more to do.’”

 “So much more to do,” Jahanbakhsh says.

Suffice it to say that Jahanbakhsh and Lombardo, friends since high school and former classmates in Rowan University’s William G. Rohrer College of Business, are intent on making Topos Teas a successful organic brand in the beverage industry.

In fact, just two years after they decided to establish a tea company, Jahanbakhsh and Lombardo are working at breakneck speed to make it happen. Much of their success is due to their studies and connections in the Rohrer College of Business and University-wide.

As classmates in Professor Michael Dominik’s “Entrepreneurship and Innovation” class in spring of 2017, Jahanbakhsh and Lombardo decided to seriously pursue establishing a start-up company.

By summer, they developed the company, then known as Bee’s Teas, into a formal concept. That year, they entered Rowan’s Idea Challenge, but did not place. Undaunted, they continued to grow their concept and business plan, tinkering with their recipe.

Unlike most teas, the water used in Topos Teas is never heated. Rather, the Green Rooibos herbal tea they use steeps in cold water--below 41 degrees--for eight to 10 hours. Currently, the tea is made by the pair in a commercial kitchen in Glassboro and pasteurized in Pennsauken. But Jahanbakhsh and Lombardo are seeking a company to mass produce their tea, which has a shelf life of 60 days.

“Instead of using heat to draw out flavors, you use time,” says Jahanbakhsh, a devoted tea drinker. “That’s what give it the full-body feel. It’s fresh. It’s clean. And it’s made from very simple ingredients…tea imported from South Africa, honey, mango or ginger and lime juice.”

‘A common place for tea’

The duo changed the company’s name to Topos Teas. Topos is a Greek word meaning common place or theme. Whether enjoyed at home or on the go, the tea creates a sense of commonality, Lombardo and Jahanbakhsh say.

“We’re bridging the gap between what people feel when they’re home drinking tea and what they feel when they’re out,” Jahanbakhsh says. “We like to say that our tea provides a sense of home when on an adventure and a sense of adventure when at home.”

Launching Topos Teas certainly has been an adventure for the pair. After not placing in the Idea Challenge, they were undaunted, confident in their product and vision.

They forged ahead, refining their business plan by forming connections with consumers. Jahanbakhsh carefully listened to feedback through sidewalk sampling events and with store owners. They quickly learned that succeeding in the tea industry meant understanding the people who enjoy it.

“In the beginning, we didn’t understand the industry,” Jahanbakhsh admits.

“Our biggest thing was being open to feedback and advice,” Lombardo emphasizes. “Showing you’re willing to listen goes a long way.”

Last spring, Topos Teas won the top prize--$4,000—in the Rohrer New Venture Competition. Subsequently, they were chosen for a highly-competitive, 10-week summer accelerator program sponsored by the Rowan Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. In addition to $2,600 in start-up funding, they received weekly one-on-one coaching from Phil Michaels, co-founder of Tembo Education. Michaels has been recognized as a Forbes 30 Under 30 Entrepreneur.

Topos Teas

Jahanbakhsh and Lombardo, who have raised more than $40,000 in loans from family members and friends to fund their startup, drew heavily from their Rowan connections. Their package design was created by 2018 art alumna Lauren Burke, who hand sketched tea leaves in their natural form. When the duo needed help with their company’s social media, they walked across campus to the Department of Public Relations and Advertising. Soon, they hired two undergraduates as social media interns.

While Jahanbakhsh and Lombardo do not take a salary—and don’t expect they’ll be able to until this summer at the earliest—their staff members, two social media interns, a sales and accounting employee, and a graphic designer all are paid.

Bottles of Topos sell for $3.29 apiece or two for $6 on sale. Currently, Topos is sold in five Whole Foods stores in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, Rastelli Market Fresh in Marlton, and Honeygrow’s minigrow on Madison Avenue in New York City.

They sold out in two hours on their first day at the Whole Foods in Newtown Square, Pa.

Jahanbakhsh and Lombardo pack coolers with ice and personally deliver the bottles to stores, giving them first-hand experience of every facet of their business. Along the way, they’ve become well-versed in food science, marketing, public relations, and consumer behavior.

“Mike has essentially become a food scientist,” says Jahanbakhsh jokingly, adding that the pair also had to navigate the FDA approval process.

Dogged determination

At its core, their story of success is one of dogged determination. To be accepted by Whole Foods, Jahanbakhsh sent weekly emails to company officials. Finally, Whole Foods asked for samples.

“They loved our tea,” Jahanbakhsh says. “One of our skills is being able to clearly articulate a vision.”

“We learned to understand this business from the bottom up,” says Lombardo. “We’re trying solve an unaddressed market need. We’ve learned that you have to be firm on some things and flexible on others. And we’ve perfected the one-minute pitch.”

Jahanbakhsh and Lombardo have bigger plans for Topos, including landing in Target stores, Amazon and Trader Joe’s. They’re exploring getting their tea onto Go Puff, an online convenience store.

“Our goal is to dominate Philadelphia and South Jersey,” says Lombardo.

‘They’re always one step ahead’

They’re making great progress, says Dominik, a lecturer in the Rohrer College of Business.

“Kavon and Mike have continually sought input, perspective and opinions from a diverse population of experts,” says Dominik. “They listen well. They learn well. And they adapt well, all the while keeping to their core values of a high-quality, organic, consumer-accepted product. It’s been very interesting to see how their business model has changed over time.”

Eric Liguori, executive director of the University’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, says Jahanbakhsh and Lombardo have entered a crowded beverage market. Unlike many entrepreneurs who have an optimism bias and a natural inclination to avoid coaching, the pair readily accepts—and seeks—feedback, according to Liguori.

“They’re always one step ahead of wherever you think they should be going next,” says Liguori. “They pick up each other’s weaknesses. They’re very open to feedback. They ask for it and create it. For entrepreneurship students, coachability is one of the biggest challenges.”

As they work to build their company, the success Jahanbakhsh and Lombardo have achieved thus far positively influences other young entrepreneurs, says Liguori.

“The ability to see a peer going out and doing something is a very powerful motivator,” Liguori says. “Their peers are seeing them overcoming obstacles. We know that’s one of the powerful catalysts for other entrepreneurs.”

“We think our success so far is half the idea and the vision and the other half is us,” says Lombardo. “We’ve had store owners who carry our products say, ‘I love this tea and I really like you guys.’”

As they continue to build their company, Jahanbakhsh and Lombardo are cautiously hopeful.

“It’s definitely an exciting feeling, but it ebbs and flows,” says Jahanbakhsh. “I mean, we’re two college kids—21 and 22 years old—taking on Coke and Pepsi brands.

“We love our product,” he adds, ever-so-slightly turning into a salesman. “It pairs well with salads, yogurts, and fruits. Anyone who’s into simple, clean, healthy living will love our tea.”