Uruguayan-Argentine partnership brews a tea business
BUENOS AIRES — Tea enthusiasts Guillermo Casarotti and Inés Berton each launched their own companies before joining forces in a new venture to persuade South Americans to indulge in brews beyond the traditional and ubiquitous mate.
Fate and a shared passion for tea brought the entrepreneurs together, and after several years of independent success and informal collaboration, they formed a joint venture, Chamana, in 2008.
Yet Berton’s own aspirations had been tested by terrible timing. Returning home after a decade of living in New York, her flight touched down on December 20, 2001, the day President Fernando de la Rúa abandoned office during one of the bleakest moments of Argentina’s financial implosion.
Then 29 years old, Berton was undeterred by the bad economy, convinced that enough Argentines still had disposable income and, given the markedly higher cost of international travel, would spend more of it at home. She also saw the middle classes turning to Asian cultures for inspiration in the crisis. So Berton went ahead in 2002 and launched Tealosophy in her apartment with just $132, preparing her own specialty blends using ingredients from all over the world.
Berton met fellow tea entrepreneur Casarotti after he learned of her similar business and contacted her. In 2003, Casarotti had founded his tea business, IntiZen, with $150,000 in personal savings and funds raised from family and friends. That same year, the two began to collaborate, his strong business background complementing her skill in blending leaves.
Originally from Uruguay, Casarotti become fascinated with tea in his 20s while backpacking in France, where he met his wife, French native Anna Sophie. He earned an MBA at Cornell University, moved to Buenos Aires in the 1990s and worked in marketing for a series of U.S. multinational corporations: PepsiCo, Kraft Foods, Burger King and Monsanto. At Monsanto, he was bitten by the entrepreneurial bug. After water, tea is the most frequently consumed beverage in the world. It would give him the satisfaction of promoting a healthy product, he said.
With three children and a spouse to support, Casarotti described the first year as nerve-wracking. “I dove into the swimming pool without knowing if it was even filled with water,” he said.
The anxiety has eased but a huge hurdle — for both Berton and Casarotti — has been the small market. Camellia sinensis, whose leaves and leaf buds are used in green and black teas, is grown in Argentina. Argentines do drink it, though they are devoted to the tradition of yerba mate, a pungent tea. Few consumers had an appreciation for gourmet blends.
Berton and Casarotti positioned their respective products as part of a lifestyle change.
Casarotti says they approached wine-tasting bars in Buenos Aires and pitched tea to the owners as an alternative for female customers who often accompanied their dates or husbands but did not consume as much alcohol. With their companions sipping tea, the men stayed longer — and drank more wine.
Outside of Argentina, IntiZen and Tealosophy products are available at high-end retail establishments such as Harrods in London and La Grande Epicerie in Paris, as well as trendy destinations, like the Delano Hotel in Miami Beach. Tealosophy also operates three retail shops in Buenos Aires and has an outpost in Barcelona.
IntiZen managed to turn a profit in 2005, Casarotti says, and last year the company generated $800,000 in revenue. Berton did not disclose revenue for Tealosophy.
The joint venture Chamana, which specializes in herbal teas made from plants grown in the Andes and other parts of Latin America, took in $300,000 in revenue in 2009, Casarotti said.
He expects that he and Berton will consolidate the three companies within five years, with the goal of becoming the leading provider of specialty tea in the region. To make that happen, Casarotti is focused on breaking first into the Brazilian market and then into Mexico.
Economic uncertainty may, ironically, support future sales, Berton said.
“Tea has survived for thousands of years. It has survived world wars and all kinds of unrest,” she said. “At times like these, people look for something that feeds the soul.”
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