News & Politics

Honest Tea Is Being Scrapped by Coca-Cola. Its Founder Has a Plan.

Seth Goldman is launching Just Ice Tea.

Photograph by Evangeline Pergantis, Eat the Change

In May, the Bethesda entrepreneur Seth Goldman was preoccupied with mushroom jerky and carrot chews—products made by his latest company, Eat the Change—when he got an unexpected call from Coca-Cola. The person on the line bore news that Goldman describes as a “gut punch”: Coke was killing Honest Tea, the business that had made Goldman’s career.

Goldman and his former business professor, Barry Nalebuff, cofounded the brand in 1998, offering a less sweet alternative to Snapple and Arizona that was made with organic, fair-trade ingredients. Goldman quit his job at a social-investment company and began brewing teas out of his Bethesda home kitchen, pouring samples for Washingtonians outside Metro stops and grocery stores. The concept took off, and by 2006 Honest was moving about 1.5 million cases a year.

Goldman sold the company to Coca-Cola in 2011—he hoped it would be a move toward “democratizing organic,” he says—and stayed on as CEO until 2019. But while Honest Tea became a familiar brand, its popularity apparently waned, and Coca-Cola will stop making it next year. (The Honest Kids juice line will continue.)

So now Goldman is doing something he never thought he would: launching another iced-tea company. “If you had told me, even two months ago, that I would be doing interviews about the beverage business again, I probably wouldn’t have believed you,” says Goldman, who is also part of the leadership team for Beyond Meat and PLNT Burger. “I thought we were done with that.” But after digesting the news and hearing from hordes of Honest fans, he decided to jump in. His team at Eat the Change largely consists of people who helped build Honest Tea, and he already had a network of organic-ingredient providers in India, China, and several African countries.

The new brand is called Just Ice Tea—a name that, not coincidentally, looks similar to “Justice Tea.” The naturally sweetened drinks will be produced as part of Eat the Change’s product line. Expect bottles to start sliding onto shelves as soon as November—a crazy-fast turnaround time, considering it would usually take 18 months to transform an idea into product “in an aggressive scenario” at Coca-Cola, Goldman says.

Two big national retailers have already committed to carrying Just Ice Tea, but Goldman hopes the DC area will serve as an early booster in the same way it was for Honest. “I want people to feel hometown pride,” says Goldman, who still bikes the Capital Crescent Trail to the Bethesda office where he built his last beverage company. “People in the region feel attached to Honest Tea, and we want them to feel the same way about Just Ice Tea.”

This article appears in the September issue of Washingtonian.

Jessica Ruf
Assistant Editor