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Kingdom Magazine: Issue 15

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Tea for Tee

March 01, 2010

Chris Byrd, founder of Innovative Flavors and marketing inspiration behind Arnold Palmer Tea, provides his personal behind-the-scenes account of developing the world’s fastest growing ready-to-drink iced tea brand
Arnold Palmer Half & Half

“Chris, we’ve got to go out to firestone this weekend and watch this young man named Palmer,” my father said to me. “He has a heck of a swing and can hit the ball a mile! He’ll probably even win this weekend.”

That was 1964 and I was 14 years old. I remember standing alongside my dad on the 16th fairway, a monster of a hole, at Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio. We watched Mr. Palmer lash at the ball, and hit his drive further than anyone else that day.

After the tournament, we went to the clubhouse, where my mom happened to be employed waiting tables. Shortly thereafter, the players started to arrive. One by one they began to file into the club. Mr. Palmer arrived and my mom went to take his order. As they were talking, I saw him give her a hug. He did that because her name was “Birdie”.

The late 1950s and early 1960s witnessed Arnold Palmer making professional golf his own personal showcase. Winning seven majors in six years, he was well on his way to legendary status. As his popularity rose, so did his fan base, which became known as Arnie’s Army Not only did people want to golf like Arnold Palmer, but they wished to model their lives on their hero too. This included drinking the beverages he ordered.

One evening after a long day of designing a course in Palm Springs during the 1960s, Arnold Palmer stepped up to a bar and asked the bartender for a mixture of lemonade and iced tea. A woman sitting next to him overheard what he ordered and told the bartender, “I’ll have that Palmer drink.” From that moment on, this refreshing lemonade-iced tea beverage became known as an “Arnold Palmer,” and its name gradually spread throughout the golfing world and beyond into mainstream America.

Living the dream
Fast forward to 2001. My family and I were now living near Bay Hill Lodge & Club. I was playing a lot of golf. And, by now, I’ve ordered a lot of “Arnold Palmers.” There were many times over the years I wondered about packaging this iced tea-lemonade mix. Over time, the idea began to take shape. During a golf outing rain delay, I shared my idea with my food and beverage industry associates Charley Beck and Mark Dowey. With a golf course as our backdrop, and as I sipped on an Arnold Palmer, we formulated the business plan that would become Arnold Palmer Tea.

We worked with our design team to develop the visuals and our flavor house to develop a great tasting formula. The original concepts took the famous Palmer umbrella and replaced it with a lemon wedge skewered by a golf tea. Our cartons were bright blue, making them like no other currently in the grocery aisle. And, of course, Arnold Palmer’s image was prominently displayed.

The brand was developed and the prototypes were made. Now we had to sell Mr. Palmer.

I was granted a meeting for the Monday morning after the 2001 Bay Hill Invitational—now the Arnold Palmer Invitational. The place was abuzz, as Tiger Woods had won the tournament for the second year in a row. I was meeting with Mr. Palmer and IMG executive Alastair Johnston. I arrived with a business plan under my arm and some samples in my hands. It was the biggest presentation of my life, and it was raining.

Mr. Johnston and I met first, then Mr. Palmer was brought into the room. He shook hands with me and said, “young man, I understand you have something very interesting for me.” And with that, Mr. Palmer was briefed on our plan, and given samples to try. The meeting ended with Mr. Palmer saying, “let’s get this done.” We shook hands and left. Two months later the contracts were signed and the real work began.

We formed our management company, Innovative Flavors LLC. Our plan was built around the idea that we could license dairies and tea manufacturers throughout the country to process and package the product under strict quality assurance guidelines, and market the product using the Arnold Palmer name and images. In return, Innovative Flavors would provide the formula and the ingredients to sell to the dairies and/or the iced tea manufacturers, creating a revenue stream to pay royalties to Arnold Palmer Enterprises. Our goal was to sell Arnold Palmers in every convenience store, supermarket, golf club and restaurant around the world.

We started first with the refrigerated product marketed to dairies—where Charley, Mark and I all had connections. Soon there were half-gallon containers of our Arnold Palmer Tea in grocery stores from California to Connecticut. Everything was moving along nicely. Shortly thereafter, we received an inquiry from the Arizona Iced Tea Co. Arizona was interested in producing a shelf-stable version of the tea and selling it through their distribution channels.

The next year resulted in about a half-dozen dairies being licensed and producing the refrigerated version in half-gallon containers. We were on our way.

Arnold Palmer and Chris Byrd
Tea time is happy hour for Arnold Palmer and Chris Byrd

One of the largest dairy processors is Heartland Farms in the Los Angeles/southern California market. Today, Arnold Palmer Tea is the number one refrigerated iced tea drink in that market, selling in most, if not all, the supermarket chains in southern California.

The agreement with Arizona Beverages started with the licensing and manufacturing of the shelf stable, 23-ounce commemorative can. Currently, Arizona is close to a billion-dollar, privately held company and the marketer of the nation’s number one ready-to-drink tea. But back in 2001, we were a much smaller entity and readily admit we were merely guessing (based on our enthusiasm) the product might see some success. Good guess.

Arizona has experienced multiple years of 100 percent growth in the line of Arnold Palmer beverages, with an estimated wholesale value of annual sales approaching $50 million. They also sell to stores in Asia, Europe, South Africa, Mexico, Canada and South America. The line now consists of the original flavor (made from five select black tea blends and a lemon extract), along with Green Tea/Lemonade products as well as a Pomegranate/Black Tea version.

Packaging ranges from 12-ounce cans in refrigerated 12-packs, 23-ounce cans, 20-ounce plastic golf ball shape bottles, 34-ounce bottles, 42-ounce bottles, 64-ounce and gallon jugs, as well as the newer mix sticks for mixing into a bottle of water.

The line is, by far, the fasted growing iced tea flavor in America and is expanding from a niche drink to a mainstream beverage.

As of June 2009, Arizona’s Arnold Palmer Teas were the fastest growing ready-to-drink iced tea brands in the country.

When we started Arnold Palmer Tea, I was at a point in my life where my food career was peaking and I needed something new on which to focus, keep me busy and support me in retirement. Well it’s certainly done that, and more!

At lunch a few weeks ago at a Manhattan barbecue joint, my buddy ordered iced tea and lemonade mixed. “You mean an Arnold Palmer,” our young waitress said. When she returned with the drink, I asked her on a hunch if she knew who Arnold Palmer was. “I didn’t know it was a person, I thought it was just a name for iced tea and lemonade,” she replied.

Mr. Palmer has been such a deeply imbedded part of American culture for so long that it’s not surprising some people—especially, those too young to have known him as a golfer—mistake him for a product rather than a person.

In my case, I have spent my whole life watching Mr. Palmer. I lived in a neighborhood close to Bay Hill, his winter home. My children attended school with his grandchildren. I was a huge golf enthusiast, and had ordered many an Arnold Palmer in restaurants. To think all this could come together as one of the greatest tea brands ever is, to me, simply amazing.

I also get the feeling that somehow Mr. Palmer knew it would work and was not as surprised as the rest of us involved. Consumers of all ages love the beverage. College students collect the cans and stack them on the walls. Golfers revive their senses on hot days on the course. Families enjoy it from the gallon jugs while dining on their decks and patios. The drink has a Facebook page with more than 65,000 friends. And soon, Arizona will announce the launch of the Arnold Palmer KidZ line in 10-ounce containers with some of the proceeds, appropriately, going to support the Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children.

It keeps getting bigger, and it keeps getting better.

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