PORTLAND, Maine — Jay Lombard was a soda junkie with a thirst for something healthier.
Overweight, inactive and living in New York, he was horrified by the ingredients in commercial soda. The avowed root beer lover bought a seltzer machine to make his own.
But the flavor packets they sent him were even worse. Riddled, he says, with carcinogens. “There is nothing out there for flavoring soda naturally,” said Lombard.
So he rummaged around his kitchen and settled on tea. Brewing up a strong pot, he added seltzer water and a delicious, new tea drink was born.
“Why don’t I make a tea soda and bottle that?” said the entrepreneur, who was running a dog daycare business in Brooklyn when his eureka moment hit.
Moving to Portland in January, the environment was right to launch Finest Kind Tea Concentrate. He made his first batch in June and now offers two flavors — wild Maine blueberry white tea and half and half, which is black tea and lemonade concentrate, also known as the Arnold Palmer.
Sold in 16-ounce glass apothecary bottles for $6.99, the strong tea blends can be fizzed up, iced down, heated or blended with tap water. Lombard also recommends mixologists add rum or gin for an easy cocktail.
“There is nothing on the market out there like this,” said Lombard, who markets his invention as sustainable because one bottle can make up to a gallon of tea or the equivalent of eight bottles of iced tea.
Also, his drinks are either unsweetened or spiked with honey or a touch of natural cane sugar. “It’s really a low-calorie soft drink alternative,” he says.
Whole Foods in Portland put Finest Kind on its shelves the week before Labor Day.
Brewing and bottling at Coastal Farms in Belfast and Pemberton Gourmet Foods in Gray, the Finest Kind Tea Concentrate, bottled by Maine Original Trading Co. is gearing up for a busy new year.
Lombard is a finalist in the Next Big Food Thing. The contest, run by online food delivery service Fresh Direct, seeks the best food innovation in the country. Lombard stands to win $10,000 in the crowdfunding contest. The click off ends Dec. 17th. He is one of 15 competitors.
Having the word Maine stamped on his sophisticated labels helps. The number of new products seeking to become members of Maine Made has been “overwhelming,” said Tammy Knight, who manages Maine’s Department of Economic and Community Development program.
“There are a lot of people that have moved to find entrepreneurial pursuits, and for one reason or another they decide they want to have their companies here,” said Knight.
Maine Made is a clearinghouse of top products produced, shipped and marketed in Maine, said Knight. And more are added daily. Of the 1,800 items on MaineMade.com from jewels to sporting goods, Finest Kind Tea stands out.
“For a young company, he is doing exceptionally well,” said Knight.
“The product itself is really good. So is the business concept, and he is marketing at all the right trade shows at the right time … he knows what he wants to do.”
Next year he is preparing to launch three new flavors, including a hibiscus green tea with honey, blueberry pomegranate white tea and orange vanilla rooibos.
Lombard has approval to sell the concentrate in 50 Whole Food stores in the North Atlantic and will be making his way through the stores in March with his pitch.
In these customized, do-it-yourself times, putting the power in the hand of the consumer is key to the success of his business, according to the 39 year old.
“People can turn on the tap and control how this product is made,” said Lombard. “They have control over their taste.”