In 2007, after working for 24 years in the automotive business, Rick McQueen decided he needed a change. As he puts it, the inspiration for his new venture came from his faith and his family.
You see, McQueen's family is from the South, and he recalls his grandfather brewing sweet tea for the family, a practice he adopted in his teenage years. About 10 years ago, married and with a family, he took up the habit again, preparing pitchers of the beverage for family gatherings and holidays. Soon, family and friends were praising his refreshing drinks, even suggesting he market the tea.
With a laugh, McQueen, now 59, jokes with us, saying, "You know how family can get you into things and then leave you there." But McQueen deliberated over the decision for more than a month, appealing for divine guidance.
"Between Thanksgiving and New Year's Eve 2007, I prayed about it," he recalls. "And God said yes. So January 2008, I started the company, approached some friends of mine, close associates, and said, 'Hey, can you put this in your store, in your barbecue place?' That was the first two places that we started with. And we had two flavors at that time, Original and Splash of Lemon."
The operation went from brewing two flavors on two ranges at McQueen's home to brewing hundreds of gallons of more than a half-dozen flavors at a local facility and beyond. The operation has since grown by leaps and bounds, thanks to the all-natural approach McQueen has taken, and the sweet refreshing flavors of the teas. We had McQueen's "Grandazzo," a lemonade-tea hybrid is sweetened with cane sugar, and the "Splash of Lemon" is more complex, with sweetness, tartness, and black tea bite all at once.
Metro Times: So this started out as a home-based business?
Rick McQueen: We were still making this in the house. My wife and I brewed 125 gallons every two weeks, with two stoves upstairs and downstairs going for about an eight-hour shift. One Saturday, while we were doing it, she said, "Honey, I love you, but this gotta get out my kitchen." So we asked God for a brewery. In December of that year, we brewed our first 500 gallons. We filled about 1,000 bottles and it took us about 10 weeks to get rid of them. The next time we manufactured about 750 gallons, it took us about the same time to move that product. And since then, we've just been blessed to grow ever since.
MT: And what are your flavors now?
McQueen: Our four core flavors are Original Sweet, Sweet with Lemon, Unsweetened, and a Lemonade-Tea mix that's about half-and-half. But we actually have seven flavors. We also have a Green Tea with Honey and Lemon, a Peach, and a Raspberry. So this is our seventh year; we're still trying to expand our brand and grow, not only in the Michigan market, but starting to expand out to other states as well.
MT: The Original and the Splash of Lemon were the first two?
McQueen: Yes, the first two. And then we found out that mostly in suburbs and around colleges that the Unsweetened was a major request, so that's when we came out with the Unsweetened. But our success is based on what we don't put it in the product. There's no high-fructose corn syrup, there's no artificial ingredients or flavor. All of our products are decaffeinated, and there's no floaties in 'em! So you don't have to shake them, like some of the other guys where you gotta shake tea.
MT: Is that because it's so fresh?
McQueen: Well, that's because of the way we brew it, the way we manufacture it. You know, when we were making it in the house and then moving into commercial brewing, I heard all types of horror stories of what's going to happen to the product, and what's going to be put in it, and all these preservatives and things like that ... and none of that had to happen in ours. It's brewed at a temperature that kills all the micro-organisms. And we've never had to incorporate those things.
MT: And it's widely available now?
McQueen: We've expanded our brand throughout Michigan. We're in more than 70 locations throughout metro Detroit, ranging from little shops to Meijer's.
MT: Our staff really liked the samples you sent. I liked the tension between the lemon, sugar, and tea in the "Splash of Lemon" a lot.
McQueen: Our Original Tea was meant to be sweet tea. I didn't want it as sweet as when you get sweet tea from the South. Then some people say, "You know, this tea is a little sweet!" And I would suggest they take the lemon, 'cause the lemon cuts the sweetness a little and provides a better blend of the sweetness, the lemon, and the tea taste.
MT: I was wondering if you would say a word or two about the importance of buying from black-owned businesses, especially in Detroit.
McQueen: Well, we really need to support one another. Not just because of our nationality, but because we have good products and services. So I think it's most important that we support each other in all of our business endeavors, just as other nationalities do. Not everyone gets fame and forgets where they come from. Most people — you see it in athletes, in movie stars, singers — they always remember their roots and where they come from. We're a Christian-based company, we'll always remember our roots, and we'll remember the people who helped us along the way.
MT: Well, Rick: What are you gonna ask the good Lord for next?
McQueen: We want to continue expanding our brand. Right now, our team is working on some distribution opportunities in Atlanta. So we have one of our colleagues in that area, and hopefully we'll be having product on the way there shortly. And the good thing there, anywhere in the South, is you have warmer weather for a longer period of time than you do here in the North. Warmer weather makes them have more events than we have. So we're looking to expand our brand nationwide, it's just a matter of the cinch by the inches, just hard by the yard.
For a full list of vendors, see grandadssweettea.com.