Sasha Smithhart, an HTeaO franchisee in Carrollton, says most people ask her if they are a new boba tea shop. But no, this is Texas-style iced tea from an Amarillo-based chain that offers 24 flavors of sweetened or unsweetened tea to go, and it’s expanding “aggressively” into North Texas, says CEO Justin Howe.
Howe says iced tea has evolved in a very similar way to the way coffee has evolved. “It’s a craft type of beverage. We’re trying to make a better quality," he says.
Howe’s parents started the company in 2008 at their hamburger restaurant, Buns Over Texas, in Amarillo. They called it Texas Tea.
“Things are becoming more niche,” Howe says. “If you want a good piece of meat, you go to a butcher. The world’s trending toward more specialty products.”
Howe says sales were flat at the burger restaurant during the 2008 financial crisis, so they introduced six different flavors of iced tea, and sales went up. “It was a complete experiment,” he says. Howe has owned several other businesses in the construction and aviation industries, and says he was going down his own business path. “The tea wasn’t my favorite idea at the time,” he says. “But I’m also not a dummy. I watched the success of it and we decided to collaborate on it."
The company opened a Texas Tea prototype store in 2009 and a second location in Midland in 2014, which they called HTeaO. “There were quite a few challenges to the business model,” Howe says. “To make 24 flavors of tea taste right required quite a bit of research and development.”
They then built a franchise infrastructure and supply chain, and now HTeaO has 58 franchisees, with 130 locations under development. Howe says they have about 15 stores being immediately developed in the Metroplex, including one coming soon in Plano on Park Boulevard and Ohio Drive, and another 15 are contracted to be developed in the next 24-48 months.
Most locations are freestanding buildings with drive-throughs. You can also walk in to get your tea, some snacks, and maybe a YETI cooler, but there are no seats for lingering or working. Most customers are on-the-go, longtime iced tea drinkers or recovering soda drinkers.
“Tea is one of those things that’s an alternative to sodas,” Howe says. You can get to-go cups in small, medium, large, quart, half-gallon or gallon sizes, as well as filtered water and bagged ice.
Howe says their bestselling product is the 24-ounce tea, the smallest size, but within 60-90 days the 44-ounce quickly becomes the top seller. “There’s a negative connotation with the Big Gulp,” he says. “People are at first embarrassed to be seen with a big cup, but then they are proud to walk around with it.”
There are 24 flavors ― including peach ginger, coconut and mint ― of green and black tea, plus some non-caffeinated herbal options, a decaf black tea, and a “turbo” tea, which has added caffeine. The sweetened options use cane sugar, not syrups.
Howe says cultivating a good working environment is important to the company as well. “We really get a lot of interest in employment,” he says. “You don’t stink at the end of the night, and there are no greasy floors. The music is loud; the atmosphere is energetic.”
Darlene Roe, the official brand ambassador for the company, says they want to leave a “positive footprint in the community, not just a mudprint.” Each store has a little different feel because each community is different, she says, and they often have specials for teachers and nurses, and first responders can get free tea all day long.
“We just want to say, ‘We see you,’ and we want to give them a little something to sweeten their day.”
HTeaO locations in North Texas include Carrollton: 3743 Frankford Road; Mosaic Dallas: 300 N. Akard Street; and coming soon in Plano: 4609 W. Park Blvd. hteao.com.