In 1973, I went off to college at Syracuse University in upstate New York with no clear
idea what I wanted to major in and after four and a half semesters of unproductive study, I dropped out and went home to try and figure out what I wanted to do with my life. Torn between making a good living and pursuing something meaningful, I took a job in New York City to make some money and get my head together.
I was restless in New York—the biting stench of carbon monoxide and tobacco smoke, the lack of open space, the crush of crowds and the unruliness of bicycle messengers and taxicabs racing to beat the traffic lights made working in the city unenjoyable, if not dangerous. The only redeeming value was the amount of daily walking though the vastness of Manhattan’s concrete and steel canyons—but I yearned for the wide open spaces, forests, and the intimacy with nature I enjoyed in my youth.
In July of 1976, I followed the sage advice of Horace Greely to “go west” and moved to Phoenix,
Arizona to seek my fortunes. I returned to college at Arizona State University briefly — disillusioned once again when I could not find something to unleash my creative instincts – and then I started looking to get into business. In 1982, after two failed attempts, I founded China Mist Tea Company with friend Dan Schweiker. Both of us had gone broke in the coffee business within a month of each other earlier in the year.
At China Mist, I was able to exercise my creativity almost unfettered. In those days, fresh brewed iced tea was generally made in stainless steel dispensers using
large restaurant filter bags—a method that produced inconsistent iced tea. Where the predominant iced tea suppliers were turning to instant teas, we were one of the first companies to see a future in Bunn-Omatic’s new iced tea brewer, which produced 3 gallons of fresh brewed iced tea in just 10 minutes—consistent every time.
By 1983, we knew we were on to something. We sourced a better quality of iced tea for mainstream foodservice and marketed it as “gourmet fresh-brewed iced tea.” We broadened our product offering to include flavored iced teas (Passion Fruit being the first) and as our company grew, we developed a unique distributor system of independent entrepreneurs to market our products and practices from California to Florida.
As I became more confident of our unique place in the foodservice iced tea market, I also began to evolve my environmental values.
I had finally been able to integrate my environmental values with my marketing acumen. However, in this case, I was way ahead of the curve. Because the new “Estate Black” iced tea was Fair Trade® and Organic, it was expensive and although this kind of product was beginning to show promise in natural food stores and gourmet markets, our offering met a resistant market of foodservice buyers who did not see the value these two certifications afforded.
A sustainable business has to account for three bottom lines: people, planet, and, of course, profit. Here I reached the inescapable conclusion that our Fair Trade Organic iced tea venture was to become a niche product in a niche market. To make it successful, I would need to go back to school.
Part 3 of my sustainability journey will recount my recent experience in the Executive Master of Sustainability Leadership Program at ASU.
John Martinson is the Co-Founder and Chief Sustainability Officer for Scottsdale, Arizona-based China Mist Iced Tea Company.