Whether steamed through an espresso machine and toted in a sleek travel mug or sipped from a gourd and bombilla in a slow ceremony, yerba matÃ© is the new, hip beverage of choice for health-conscious customers looking to kick their coffee habit.
Yerba matÃ©, steeped from the dried leaves and stems of the tropical rain forest plant Ilex paraguariensis, has been a South American staple for centuries as a healthful stimulant and a cultural tradition. Now in the United States, matÃ© attracts two main consumer groups, according to Aaron Henderson of Wisdom Natural Brands: coffee-dependent baby boomers looking for a more healthful alternative, and younger customers searching for a nutritious, invigorating drink that also feels en vogue.
?They?re looking for the same pep, but without the jitters and the crash,? says Saja Butler, department manager and assistant grocery buyer for the Fort Collins Food Co-op in Fort Collins, Colo.
With two growing target audiences and a profit margin of almost a dollar more per box than other products in the tea category, Henderson says, matÃ© can be a big-earning category. A little knowledge about matÃ© and some strategic marketing and placement can keep customers coming back again and again.
Knowledge is key
At the Fort Collins co-op, former grocery manager Derek Markham gathered up his employees to experiment with matÃ©. After they had tried matÃ© and knew its benefits, the employees were able to give personal recommendations to customers.
Employees who know that matÃ© has been shown to contain a long list of nutrients, including vitamins A, C, E and the B-complex, as well as calcium, magnesium, iron and potassium, will be able to assure customers of the drink?s health benefits.
Because it has been shown to contain xanthine alkaloids, smooth-muscle relaxants that can dilate bronchi, matÃ© has been used to treat asthma. Also, since matÃ© is a stimulant, many dieters use it as an appetite suppressant.
But all other uses aside, matÃ©?s main attraction seems to be as a coffee alternativeâand the matÃ© companies know how to reach the java crowd. For customers who are trying to leave coffee behind but still crave its smooth, nutty taste, Guayaki Yerba MatÃ© created Java MatÃ©. The blend of the ram?n nut in dark roast with mocha and vanilla makes a flavorful option for customers who like the coffee taste, but want the benefits of matÃ©. For those who like flavored teas, Wisdom Natural Brands produces vanilla, chai spice and lemon-flavored matÃ©. To add to the beverage?s health benefits, matÃ© drinkers can spike their brew with medicinal herbs, such as peppermint to soothe the digestive system or echinacea to boost the immune system.
Sipping for a cause: the environment
Sustainability is a major selling point you can drive home with environmentally concerned customers. Several matÃ© companies make a special effort to deal fairly with their South American workers and invest in the environment instead of contributing to its decay. Guayaki Yerba MatÃ© comes from a 20,000-acre rain forest preserve in Paraguay, which is home to more than 332 bird and animal species. The 34 indigenous families earn income from matÃ© production, and the company?s donations and presence help protect the preserve. You can assure your matÃ© customers that their purchase is environmentally and socially supportable in the long run.
Prepare with panache
Traditionally, South American matÃ© is passed around in a slow, communal ceremony. It is prepared in a cured gourd and sipped through a straw called a bombilla, which has a filter on the end to strain out the loose matÃ© leaves. This might appeal to a segment of consumers, but matÃ© can be prepared in other ways that might fit more easily into the hurried 21st century lifestyle.
MatÃ© tea bags can be dropped into a bottle of cold water and shaken for a nutritious lift on the go. Loose matÃ© can also be brewed in a regular coffee maker, a French press, or even prepared in an espresso machineâjust trade out the coffee beans for the matÃ© leaves. MatÃ© tea bags can also be prepared with hot water, just like other teas.
Sample, sample, sample
Unfortunately, no matter how much information you give customers about the health benefits of matÃ©, some first-time consumers will still be skeptical about buying a whole box of tea bags or an entire bag of loose leaves without knowing what matÃ© tastes like. Banish their matÃ© anxieties. How? ?Sample, sample, sample!? says Butler, of the Fort Collins co-op. Hosting a sample day in your store with a freshly brewed pot of matÃ© gives customers confidence about the flavor of the product they are buying. An air pot can keep matÃ© warm and ready to be divided into small sample cups. Giving away individual tea bags for customers to take home gives patrons a reminder of the product and makes you look generous. With the help of the matÃ© companies, it won?t hurt your store?s budget either. Nativa Yerba MatÃ© works on a cooperative basis with stores to provide enough matÃ© to display, and Guayaki and Wisdom Natural Brands are also willing to provide samples.
Market that matÃ©
A little creative grouping and marketing can also go a long way to boost matÃ© sales. Give matÃ© its own section to help attract new customers and make it easier for matÃ© drinkers to find their favorite products (matÃ© products often get lost when displayed with tea).
Promoting gourd and bombilla kits can also draw add-on sales. Although they might not move as quickly, they make creative gifts and liven up a matÃ© display.
As the number of matÃ© drinkers increases, creative marketing and your knowledge about the products will become more important. And according to Guayaki co-founder David Karr, the number of matÃ© drinkers is sure to increase. ?Coffee fueled the industrial revolution,? he says, ?And now matÃ© is the fuel for the green revolution.?
Hilary Oliver is a freelance writer in Fort Collins, Colo.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVI/number 9/p. 60, 62