Lou Thomann makes delicious teas from yaupon leaves and twigs hand-picked in the wild near his hometown, Savannah. He also uses locally grown honey, muscadine and scuppernong as sweeteners. “Ours is an amazing American story,” he says when asked to describe his new business, ASI Tea, Inc. “We call our yaupon teas the ‘All-American Healthy Energy Beverage’.”

Just a few weeks into distribution, Thomann has shown there’s a market for his new “tree to table” product, which doesn’t surprise him. “Our proof of concept has been blazed by ASI’s two South American cousin drinks, Yerba Mate and Guayusa, which both have huge worldwide demand. And we beat them both in taste tests.”

On his website, drinkASI.com, he shows that yaupon teas have a history that goes back tens of thousands of years. “Our tea has a great southern history and pedigree,” he continues. “It is the only native source of caffeine in the 48 states; an antioxidant-rich, healthy energy drink. It’s natural energy. And we expect it will soon be a drink of choice from Georgia to California.”

Thomann, a passionate entrepreneur, recognized his company would need to ramp up its production capacity rather quickly once it began building a distribution network. So when he began looking for strategic partnerships, he sought assistance from the University of Georgia SBDC in completing his business planning and financial modeling.

“We’ve been working with Lou for a couple of years,” says Jason Anderson, area director for the UGA SBDC at Georgia Southern University. “When he came to us, he knew he’d need to eventually expand his financing to increase his production.

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“His challenge is that he’s in a difficult type of business: specialty foods. His tea product is great! It tastes good and is healthy with all these beneficial ingredients and Georgia-sourced products. But it’s also a new product. While his concept has been proved with Yerba Mate and Guayusa, Lou is the first to commercialize yaupon teas. In his plan he shows that ASI can sell.”

While Thomann fine-tuned his production process, engaged dis- tributors and began watching his sales grow, he worked with Anderson to modify his business plan, showing how his market would expand. An- derson further consulted with him on product and marketing strategy and supply chain development.

“Lou is about eight weeks into his sales, and they’re growing rapidly,” says Anderson. His plan and financials needed to reflect this growth.

ASI Tea currently employs 25 “pickers,” many who help Thomann grind the yaupon leaves and twigs into powder, steep it, cool it and then bottle it into the variety of ASI teas. “We have been picked up by two distributors, and are close to being picked up by some nationals,” he says. “With sales growing briskly at 20 percent and higher per week, we expect 100 percent growth soon.” The company also just rolled out a new product: loose leaf Cassina Yaupon in bags.

“Thomann’s biggest challenge now is different than the marketing and sales challenges that most small business startups must first address,” says Anderson. “Lou has done his job in those areas, and his market is growing rapidly. The challenge he is now addressing is pulling together his strategic partnerships so he will have the infrastructure he needs to meet demand. His staff and sales are in place. Now he needs the equipment to expand.”