When Caroline Sandifer and Trey Jalbert invited friends over for an evening of cookies and tea — what they jokingly called a “Solidari-Tea” — they weren’t planning on starting a tea business or a fundraising model for local nonprofits. As Sandifer put it, “We hadn’t thought of it beyond inviting people over to hang out socially.” But that casual social gathering nearly nine years ago was the spark of inspiration that led the couple to do both. In 2013, they launched their own small-farm iced tea company, which raises funds for local arts and social justice nonprofits with the sale of each bottle. They named it solidariTEA.
The couple met about ten years ago. Sandifer was working as a host at a restaurant on College Avenue in Berkeley. Jalbert came in for a bite while he was babysitting his friend’s puppy, which immediately caught Sandifer’s eye. She, in turn had caught Jalbert’s eye, and he ended up asking her out in front of several of her coworkers. Sandifer was taken by surprise but said yes. The two have been together ever since and have been running solidariTEA for most of their time together.
Sandifer, originally from New York City, comes from the environmental nonprofit world, where she concentrated on work in waste production and climate change. Although dedicated to environmental education, Sandifer became worn down by working for nonprofits supported by corporate funding. In her experience, organizations that depended on corporate money became more about “quantity over quality.” And, she felt, corporations usually only want to fund “sexy” causes, rather than everyday expenses needed to run a non-profit, like paying the electricity bill. Feeling disillusioned by the corporate grants her organization received, what she thought of as “blood money,” she left the nonprofit world.
Jalbert shed light on Sandifer’s experience. “A lot of the nonprofit funding in the Bay Area and elsewhere is really dependent on corporate grants, and unfortunately, a lot of the work from those corporations tends to be very antithetical to the mission and goals of the nonprofits,” he said.
Sandifer wanted to create an alternative to the traditional corporate funding model. That’s where the “foodraising” in solidariTEA’s mission comes in. For every bottle of solidariTEA sold, 10 cents of the profit is donated to a nonprofit partner. As of this February, solidariTEA has raised $10,500 for two nonprofits in Oaklnd — volunteer-run arts organization Rock Paper Scissors Collective and West Oakland food justice group People’s Grocery.
While the idea of foodraising comes from Sandifer’s experience in the nonprofit world, the idea for SolidariTEA’s product itself comes from Jalbert’s background.
Jalbert, a Virginia native, grew up drinking a lot of iced-tea. Today, as a scientist at UCSF’s Surbeck Laboratory for Advanced Imaging studying terminal brain cancer and cancer genetics, he has a whole new respect for the beverage.
Tea, in addition to being refreshing, has natural health benefits, like reducing blood cholesterol levels. SolidariTEA teas are filled with antioxidants, from both the tea leaves and added fruits and spices, that serve to boost the immune system and fight inflammation in the body. According to Jalbert, removing inflammation “combined with a vegetarian diet can be really powerful in terms of preventing cancer.”
In addition, Sandifer and Jalbert ensure their teas are purely organic. SolidariTEA’s commitment to organic is particularly important because tea leaves are not rinsed before they’re brewed. “The tea itself is filled with everything that was on the plant,” Jalbert said, meaning if the leaves were covered in pesticides, the tea would contain those chemicals too.
Most of solidariTEA’s ingredients are sourced locally, but tea leaves themselves typically grow in Asia and Africa. Rooibos, for example, only grows in South Africa. In order to keep social justice at the forefront of its production, solidariTEA partners with small farm tea suppliers Equal Exchange, which works exclusively with democratically organized, worker-owned farms.
“At the end of the day, a lot of people recognize the transparency of knowing where your farm is and that the money generated from the sales is going back into their pockets, instead of being distributed into a system that has a lot of social justice problems,” said Jalbert.
It should come as no surprise that solidariTEA is produced with environmental sustainability in mind. The bottling facility where solidariTEAs are produced is a family-owned, solar-powered, fair-trade facility in Santa Cruz. The teas are bottled in glass because it is infinitely recyclable.
The colorful artwork on each bottle was by local artist Jim Silva, who Sandifer and Jalbert commissioned to create the designs.
While solidariTEA’s focus on health, sustainability, the arts and social justice make them different than most bottled tea companies, Sandifer and Jalbert knew their business wouldn’t succeed unless the teas tasted delicious.
“We tried to be creative with the flavor profiles of the teas to create something that people would really be interested in drinking,” Jalbert said.
While meeting with Sandifer and Jalbert, I sampled solidariTEA’s three flavors — Black Rose Ceylon, Blueberry Rooibos and Cinnamon Peach.
Before I could take my first sip of Cinnamon Peach from the bottle, Sandifer stopped me to say the drink — a black tea combined with peach juice, brown sugar and cinnamon — is best enjoyed poured over ice. She was right. The cold temperature highlights the sweetness of the tea, making it a perfect beverage for warm weather. As someone who doesn’t love cinnamon, I appreciated that the spice is present, but not overwhelming.
Next, I tasted the Black Rose Ceylon, made with Ceylon tea from Sri Lanka, rose petals and rose hips. Jalbert explained this tea has a stronger taste than the others, but at the same time, “the rose is really delicate. The tea has got floral tones layered in, but it’s not super overpowering because the roses are Damascus. It’s also got a little bit of lemon juice.”
Finally, I tried the Blueberry Rooibos, which unlike the other flavors, is naturally caffeine-free. The tea is made with rooibos, rose petals, rose hips, blueberry, elderberry and a hint of sweetness from cane sugar. I’m a sucker for anything blueberry, so this flavor was my favorite.
Although running a two-person tea company hasn’t always been easy, they’ve found solidarity for solidariTEA. Sandifer said, “We’re very blessed to have a supportive community here in the Bay for doing what we do.”
You can find solidariTEA at the Berkeley Student Food Collective, Piedmont Grocery, Mandela Food Cooperative, Whole Foods and many other markets and establishments throughout the Bay Area, Sacramento and Santa Cruz.