As the oldest millennium, I have memories of AriZona Iced Tea in high school in the late 90s and thought green tea was cool as hell.
It was a large bottle with the bright creamy green background and vibrant pink cherry blossoms. When I was growing up in the South, I was surrounded by sweet tea and it was sweet too, but a new taste profile for me. When I drank it, I felt like I did got that.
Now more than 20 years later, I rediscovered the brand when they launched a new Sun Brew coffee line. It was good coffee – especially for its grocery price point. I saw that AriZona had launched Santa Fe, a series of sparkling waters with a splash of fruit juice, a competitor to Spindrift as well as a tough seltzer, SunRise in partnership with Heineken.
All products have a common design aesthetic with bright colors and bold shapes that feel both retro 90s and very current. Had I slept on AriZona, or were they right now making more products with lower sugar now that were more in line with what adult I had been drinking?
Probably a bit of both. An article in Forbes from 2017 describes how Don Vultaggio, co-founder of AriZona, built the brand and in the early 2000s was a bigger player in the theme market than Snapple. In 2002, AriZona signed an agreement to become the official producer of Arnold Palmer’s, Kleenex of half-tea, half-lemonade drinks. But then for about a decade, Vultaggio was embroiled in a battle with his co-founder John Ferolito over the company before settling in 2015. During that time, brands like Gold Peak and Pure Leaf made inroads.
But the Vultaggio family says the brand is a much healthier economic place now, and from a pop culture and social media perspective, it is certainly much more visible than it had been. In addition to all the new product launches, AriZona has a beautiful health series that goes into the nostalgia of the 90s and 00s – AriZona has sold more than $ 1 million in green tea -merch alone on its website and has partnered with Adidas for green tea -slides, Slunks for swimwear and has products on the way with chillwear-brand StaycoolNYC and M Jewelers.
I caught up with brothers Wesley and Spencer Vultaggio, sons of Don Vultaggio, to talk about what they are working on and where they see the future of the company now that it’s all in the family. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
What have you been working on recently?
Wesley: For much of our history, we were strictly tea and juice, and then we got into energy drinks. Now we have dived into lower sugars, different kinds of ingredients, cleaner labels and seltzers – relevant beverages that happen in our industry. We launched Santa Fe about a year ago, and an extension of that is our new hard seltzer, which we launched in conjunction with Heineken.
Spencer is the marketing manager and I am the creative manager and we work together to bring new products to market. He oversees all of our social media and marketing, and I oversee creative and label design. We work together to get all the newer products out and marketed correctly, to get visibility and eyes on them.
You have an iconic package history. Santa Fe has what feels like a very current generation aesthetic. What look would you like it to have and how does it relate to who you see as fans of the brand?
Spencer: Especially for Santa Fe, it’s a departure from the traditional AriZona aesthetic, but it still has similarities in color palettes and the like. Many of our offshoots you can see relevance to existing AriZona products, the southwestern view, apart from Cherry Blossoms on the green tea, of course. The packaging is very iconic and signifies the overall appeal of AriZona and the shelf. Santa Fe does not really look like AriZona iced tea or juice, but still has some similarities.
You’ve had a partnership this summer with Haven Hotel in Montauk, which has included things like a few rooms adorned with Santa Fe-style decorations, and influencers have stayed there. How did it come about?
Spencer: The owner of the Haven Hotel is my close friend and we have a close relationship with influencers. They engrave inherently against AriZona because of the cool factor. We do a good job organically creating relationships with them. We took the opportunity to send them out there and get the Santa Fe lifestyle experience in Montauk because it represents the aesthetic and brand water – sparkling water with splashes of real fruit juice and the healthy component and all that with a surf lesson or yoga lesson – like a can brought to life in the rooms. We think it is a good untraditional way to advertise the product when the traditional advertisements are overly saturated. It’s a unique way to promote the brand and bring it to life.
Wesley – It was a great opportunity to bring a small merch component to Montauk, a small shop in the lobby [editors note: which subsequently sold out of green tea bucket hats, fanny packs, and other items].
Hard seltzer, coffee, these are all really crowded markets. How do you differentiate yourself when there are already many options out there?
Spencer: With new entries in the category it is, we put one [label] error with “Authentic AriZona” on it, so our customer base has a confidence factor with it. We have an advantage using our fanbase to promote other items, whether it is in ice cream or ready to drink or the fruit snack category. It was also a natural transition in coffee. We developed this relationship over the last 30 years with different demographics and age groups. We think we have an advantage in the market, though different categories.
It all has a similar aesthetic. As our father says, “we make it look good, we make it taste good, and we price it right.” This is our business model for the category we are entering.
How do you increase awareness of some of the new products?
Spencer: We influence seeding with our network of Tik-Tokers and get them to produce some content around it. It should differentiate us in the market, which is generally more traditional in coffee rooms, and hit a slightly younger audience with K-Cups. Our coffee is actually very high end, country specific for the different blends. We differ from quality and price.
We actually fill our K-cups with a higher filling of the coffee ground than our competitors. Hot water only comes into contact with the coffee for a short time with K-cups, so we add more reasons to the K-cup and you get a stronger, more classic production of a brewed cup of coffee. We have the quality of a La Colombe at Dunkin ‘price.
Where do you fall with price points?
Wesley: With tea with super value driven and aggressive with pricing, with seltzer market we are not so much, we want to be around the same price as everyone else. With coffee, we are targeting more aggressive retail and driving that true quality story home at a fraction of the cost you would normally pay for it. It clicks with people.
With Santa Fe, why add juice to the sparkling water instead of just the flavor essence?
Wesley: We sat down to make a nice drink. We have consistently found that taste only gets you so far, eventually you get that taste burning, if you drink too much water or seltzer with taste, we find it a little uncomfortable. With Santa Fe, we use super premium juices for low levels, we use a splash of lemon or a splash of raspberries, where it is nominal calories and the best of both worlds, with the taste effect that people want. There is nothing like real juice.
At the competitors, the consistency of that juice is everywhere. They are not able to keep the juice same taste profile and level across the board. We use a natural rosemary extract as a preservative, and it keeps all our juices super-balanced and at the same level at all times. Either way, you can pick up the same levels of acidity and juiciness. We are really proud of our wording.
How fast are you able to get an idea and then get that product on the market?
Spencer: There’s a lot of variation in what it is. Coffee does not have the same timeline as a new AriZona flavor that we are really well versed in. For AriZona, it is three to four months, for coffee was more like six months to a year. We tried a few hundred varieties of coffee and trained in the market. But go to the market for a product that is ready to drink, we are quite effective.
Wesley: We are definitely much faster and faster than all our competitors, we play with the bigger conglomerates, Cokes and Pepsis in the world, we beat them up and down the street, we are able to push lots of different flavors out of expansion and varieties – even in different categories – far faster than the competition. It’s a way for us to stay more relevant and timely just by trying all these different categories. We are able to make a decision on the go, it’s just us and our father and we can make a decision.
Historically, we have been at the mercy of our copackers, spending 50 around the country. But we just built a large facility in New Jersey, and that will change the game for us to go straight to production on a whim. If we want, we can handle it and pack it and do it all on site really fast. It is a new exciting component in our business that has a large production arm under our belt. It’s underway, but at its peak we expect 60 million cases a year from that facility.
What do you see for the future of the company?
Wesley: Tea and juice come nowhere, it’s a pill. In our culture in terms of what people want to drink, we are not worried that our category will disappear, there are many other categories out there that are more niche and more sensitive to people changing their minds and not liking it. the category more, like coconut water and other things that really lost steam.
Our business has never been stronger. We went through a period where we were distracted with some legal disputes going on, we made sure to keep the light on and not have to sell the company completely. Now that we are completely family run, within our family, we have changed labels, we have changed taste systems, we have different packaging, we have improved everything fundamentally, and the business has been phenomenal.
We are a trusted brand, a brand that people actually love and have a real connection to it. We have never really advertised in a traditional way, never pushed our brand down the throats of people in terms of commercials and Super Bowl ads. We are grassroots right to this day. We offer them lots of options other than tea and juice, now in water and seltzers and snacks. The sky is the limit of where we could bring our mark.