A hike in the Andes has inspired a Parma man to brew up a business.
He’s selling the tea he enjoyed in Peru and using a kiosk at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport to spread the news about it.
At Cleveland Hopkins Airport Gate B-4, Ryan Florio sits down with us to explain why he opened the first Inca Tea Café at his hometown airport.
“That was a rather unique decision on my behalf,” he confesses. “I wasn’t sure about opening up the café initially just because I have no experience in the retail side of things, but I thought what better way than to market my brand and product to people who are travelling from all over the country and world, and give them an opportunity to really experience and try my tea that’s made here in Cleveland.”
The back story
A self-confessed serial entrepreneur, the marketing graduate of Miami University of Ohio knows one of his biggest selling points is Inca Tea’s back story.
“I had a great opportunity four years ago to travel down to Peru and hike the Inca trail with my two best friends. And literally on the first day of our hike our Sherpa over an open fire boiled water. He threw in purple corn, some cinnamon cloves, apples and pineapples, and made an old ancient tea recipe for us.
“My friends and I are kind of picky eaters, and I kind of chuckled at my friend Zach and said if this is what we’re going to be eating for the next 10 days, I’m in a lot of trouble, because all I packed were enough granola bars and snickers bars to last me a day or two. Surprisingly I took a sip of this ancient drink and it amazed me.”
Never felt better
What amazed him most was how it made him feel. Doctors had strongly advised Florio not to take that hike. He’s had a lot of health problems.
“Just because I’d had both my knees operated on and my back operated on. I’m kind of a walking mess, and if something were to happen to me in the Andes, rescue is near impossible. There’s no cellphone service out there. But I never felt physically better than I did on that hike, and I really had no idea why.”
As soon as he got home from Peru he went straight to Google.
An ancient brew
In a few clicks he found research about potential health benefits of purple corn, the key ingredient in the tea he drank on the hike.
The beverage is called chicha morada. “It’s been brewed for 1,000 plus years in Peru,” says Florio.
“You can not only make it in your house like most people do, most Peruvians do, you can also buy it in grocery stores, gas stations, convenience stores, all over the country. So it is ready to drink in a bottle, ready to go.”
Now a tea drinker
One sip of the Peruvian national drink changed the Parma resident’s life.
“Literally my very first cup of tea was on my trip in Peru. Never had a cup of tea before then, and I still to this day have never had a cup of coffee. But now I’m an avid tea drinker. I drink tea every day.”
Not only for his business, but also for his health.
It’s higher in antioxidants than blueberries, and may help in reducing blood pressure and fighting obesity, diabetes, and cancer.
Studies show consuming purple corn may also reduce joint inflammation.
“So now looking back I know exactly why I felt great during my hike, because of all the joint problems that I have in my knees. They were dissipated because of the purple corn that I was drinking every day.”
Can point to studies
Now that he’s selling Inca Tea, he hears anecdotally about improved diabetes scores and reduced joint pain. “I get these claims and emails all the time from customers.”
The FDA says he can’t make such claims on his product labels.
“But I am allowed to say legally that purple corn has been studied and proven to help with these certain health ailments.”
Florio started his business two years ago with his families help. “Yeah, literally launched in my parents’ kitchen February 10, 2014, in North Royalton.”
He soon moved to a production facility in Lorain, but with rapid sales growth, he’s looking now for an even bigger space. “My initial goal in 2014 was to be in 50 stores. I was in about a hundred stores in the first two months.”
It’s all in the cobs
Florio imports the purple corn from Peru. He wishes he could source it locally. “I get people emailing me all the time asking, ‘I have 100 acres of land in Southern Ohio, I’d love to grow your corn. The problem with that is this particular strand of purple corn is only grown in Peru because of the elevation. It grows at a 10,000 foot elevation.”
All he really needs for his tea are the purple corn cobs.
“It’s the cob that has all the nutrient value. So I take off all the kernels from the cob, and then I grind that cob up into a powder and put the cob powder into all my tea blends.”
It’s done differently in Peru.
“The way they make it in Peru, even to this day, is they make it into a liquid format right away. So they’ll boil the cob of corn into a big vat and throw in all the cinnamon cloves, apples, pineapples, and make a liquid drink ready to go. I took about 10 months to re-engineer that liquid format into a tea bag format.”
Florio says his Peruvian Spiceberry blend is basically chicha morada.
Not quite like the Peruvians make it
“The only difference is that down in Peru they mix a lot of sugar into their drink. Mine has no sugars, no artificial flavoring.”
But it has more customers than he ever dreamed of. He’d planned to keep it local when he got his tea on the shelves of Miles Market in Solon.
“When I landed that account I thought that I was an instant success. And then I landed Heinen’s, the Mustard Seed, the Whole Foods, Giant Eagle Market Districts. But now you can find my teas in Bed, Bath and Beyonds all over the country. I’m in 50 some stores in the Chicago area. I’m starting to migrate a little more east towards New York, but I’m really trying to build a brand on the national level.”
Airport kiosk launched internet sales
He credits the airport café for helping the online part of his business take off. In Inca Tea’s first year he had only $1900 in internet sales.
“Once I opened up the café inside Cleveland Hopkins International airport my sales last year in 2015 were $30,000 online.”
Florio plans to open more kiosks at other airports. Kay Angeloff’s the Inca Tea barrista at Hopkins.
“I was just telling Ryan the other day that I had a lady that sends it to Wyoming to her son and to Connecticut to her mother-in-law.” :
Florio got started with 4 blends: white tea, black tea, mango, and the Peruvian Spiceberry. All his teas are made with purple corn.
“Just in December I launched 2 new flavors: a organic chamomile with blood orange, lemon, vanilla and citrus, and an organic Japanese green tea with ginger and coconut.”
To drink like an Inca, I opted for the Peruvian Spiceberry.
“That’s my best-seller right there," says Florio.
The taste was pleasing, sweetened with a honey stick from Ashland, Ohio.
Tapping into other cultures for health
The Inca Tea Café carries only locally-made products, and upon arrival at gate B-4 traveler Sue Trombley of Concord saw the sign for Cleveland’s-own Mitchell’s Ice Cream.
That’s what attracted her, but she’s intrigued by Inca Tea.
“Everything’s made right here in Cleveland from the boxes to the production,” Florio tells her.
“Love it. Love it,” says Trombley.
But she’s not in the market today for tea. “I’ve just returned from London so I don’t need any tea, because I brought back Twinings. But I like the idea that you can tap into like natural health benefits in other cultures and then incorporate them into ours.”
Ryan Florio loves the idea, and thinks he’s hit on something big.
“It was the first consumable product sold here in the US made from purple corn. Now you can find purple corn in tortilla chips. Someone’s making a bourbon down south in Texas. There’s another individual who’s using purple corn for a like a flour base.”
He doesn’t worry about purple corn falling out of fashion as some superfoods have done. “I think most things come in and out of fashion, but I think purple corn though is just now hitting the US. The acai berry when it was really big 15 years ago, quinoa which was really big 5, 10 years ago. They’re still big commodities. Purple corn’s just one of those new things that they’re going to start learning more about, and it’s going to be around for quite a while.”