How a young entrepreneur took his family business to new frontiers…with a little help from the Tv show The Profit
By Laura D.C. Kolnoski • Photos By robert nuzzie
Anyone who has ordered frozen desserts at Chinese or Japanese restaurants along the East Coast has likely savored Mr. Green Tea products. The firm was founded in Brooklyn in 1968 by visionary Santo Emanuele. Working in the grocery/dairy industry, he saw opportunity in the burgeoning Asian restaurant trade. He began experimenting with ice cream flavors, and hit on three winners: Green Tea, Red Bean, and Ginger. All quickly became restaurant favorites.
The company he formed, Mr. Green Tea ice cream company, was eventually taken over by his son Rich and moved to New Jersey, where it continued to grow, remaining focused on the wholesale restaurant business. In 2008, the firm moved to a modern new facility overlooking Raritan Bay in Keyport.
The business’s lasting reputation in the area’s restaurant community earned the Emanueles a spot among food vendors at parties and events during the 2009 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, among other events.
“Many already knew of and had tasted our products, and we got tremendous feedback,” Rich said. “They asked where they could get it and wanted it shipped to them.”
Pondering all that was Rich’s son, Michael, a Colts Neck High School graduate who went on to earn a degree in mechanical engineering from Villanova. Mike wanted to join the family business, but Rich insisted he gain practical experience outside of it first. Armed with ideas to grow the company, Mike, who bears a striking resemblance to his grandfather, persisted until Rich finally relented. In 2009, just as social media was exploding, Mike became the company’s vice president. His primary goals were to get the product before the general public, increase its visibility, and use social media to its full advantage.
Brand identity was key. To give consumer packaging an Asian flair, he enlisted a high school friend, now a professional artist, to create an new design. Next came hitting the bricks to persuade local grocers to carry the product, and operations and profits benefited when Mr. Green Tea began producing and packaging its own products instead of using co-packers. The company continued a steady upward trajectory. Then, out of nowhere, fate stepped in and kicked things up a notch.
Another hometown friend, who worked in entertainment media, was asked by a casting agent if he could recommend a local food business to participate in a new CNBC competition show called Crowd Rules. He did: the Emanueles (dad Rich, mom Lori, and Mike) appeared in the pilot episode.
“We lost, but Marcus was watching and called us,” said Mike. Marcus Lemonis, a successful entrepreneur and investor, wanted the family for his own business-focused CNBC show, The Profit. At first, Rich turned him down, because the show was aimed at struggling businesses and Mr. Green Tea was not that.
“Marcus was persistent and assured us we wouldn’t be portrayed as struggling, but as a company that was ready to move to the next level,” Lori said. “He held true to that.”
The family appeared in three episodes, and Lemonis purchased and maintains 25 percent of the firm. He helped the family buy a larger building in Keyport, a 100-year-old former post office building damaged in Superstorm Sandy.
Since Rich and Mike are both engineers, they acted as general contractors, completely renovating the site into an 8,000-square-foot state-of-the-art production and distribution facility. Average daily production there tops 1,500 gallons, with the capacity to produce a million gallons per year. The firm has 15 full-time employees and four freezer delivery trucks.
Lemonis also played a key role in helping Mike gain entry into supermarkets, where, he said, “fees for shelf space are enormous and freezer space is limited.” Starting with Stop & Shop, Giant Foods, Martin’s, and Peapod, Mr. Green Tea sold twice as much ice cream as anticipated.
For Mike, the experience drove home the idea that to maximize investment, the product must advertise itself from the shelf, so a complete rebranding was undertaken. Instead of the firm’s name on the front, pints now feature the flavor name in a simple but eye-catching color-coded design. The Mr. Green Tea name now appears on the side, along with content indicating graphics. New flavors have been developed based on food trends and customer desires.
“We were among the first to use graphics to represent our ingredients,” Mike said. “Our ice cream is manufactured using only food—no flavorings and no chemicals. Our BGH-free milk and cream come from grass-fed cows in New York and Pennsylvania. Our tea is imported from China, our ginger comes from a special farm in Australia, and the spices come from an Indian spice market in New Delhi. Nobody goes to the lengths we do to source ingredients.” That was the message the rebranding and new packaging sought to tell under Lemonis’ guidance.
“It was a very positive experience,” Lori said. “We developed a friendly relationship. Marcus still talks to Rich strategically about direction and growth.” Lemonis’ s day-to-day involvement is minimal. Said Mike, “He’s very busy and is a big-picture guy. We’re in touch as much as we need to be.”
Still, mentoring Mike continues. After a trip to Florida to meet with Publix Supermarkets, Lemonis brought him to an Inc. 5000 Conference, where the television personality was the keynote speaker. They flew home on Lemonis’s private jet, and they continue to travel together.
“That’s when we can have intimate conversations and I can pick his brain,” Mike said. “I was an engineer. I had ideas about my product and what success might be in this industry. Marcus invests in people, not products, which gave me confidence.”
Lori’s take: “He helped Mike channel his passion.”
Lemonis explained to us why he invested in Mr. Green Tea: “I see a lot of family companies. Rich and Lori understand the importance of running a tight operation. They not only demonstrated a strong knowledge of business, but a strong family business. [Theirs is] a good product people want.”
Of Mike Lemonis said: “He was a different person when I met him. He thought he knew it all. His parents put him through the wringer and forced him to learn on his own. That really made the difference. He’s grown up personally and professionally and become a communicator. He gets his message across in an eloquent way and is a very credible business leader. He can work in any business and be a success.”
To establish a platform for expansion, an umbrella brand, MGT Foods, was created last year. Under that is the original Mr. Green Tea brand and Mr. Mochi, which has been made by the _ rm for 30 years and sold only to restaurants. (Mr. Mochi is a dumpling of sweet rice dough _ lled with ice cream.) Neither line contains any corn syrup or gluten, and each brand now has consumer packaged and food-service versions. Even the ice cream base has been reformulated.
“Today, less is more,” Mike explained. “People don’t want certain things in their food. Carrageenan is out. Instead, we use red seaweed stabilizer. It holds molecules together and gives a creamy texture. We use all non-GMO, nutrient-dense ingredients.”
The process employs cutting-edge technology and equipment. “We literally go from the farm to the package without the product ever being exposed to open air,” said Mike. “Ice cream is a frozen foam; the art is making its ingredients homogenous and freezing them together.” Potential for contamination, he added, is virtually eliminated through a sealed system that pumps ingredients from one machine to another, with no human touching them. Temperature control is also key; a rooftop water cooler recirculates sterilized water throughout the building. No city water is used, and nothing goes down the drain.
The term is also set to comply with the Food Safety Modernization Act. The initiative, championed by former First Lady Michelle Obama and which goes into effect this fall, focuses on allergen control in food manufacturing.
Mr. Green Tea’s head of production began his career with the company as a Keyport High School intern. That educational push continues through MGT’s participation with the school’s Global Logistics and Supply Chain Management program, which is run cooperatively with Rutgers University. After completing the two-year elective, students receive credit toward a degree in the discipline at Rutgers.
“It’s a fast-growing area of study,” Mike said. “Students come here and see firsthand how supply chain management affects everything. Global climate events affect pricing and supplies. Civil wars affect cacao. Storage costs must be factored in. We dive deep into these aspects as well as day-to-day operations.” And the benefits go both ways. “Supply chain management is a difficult job to fill, so we can get new employees, too,” he said.
The long-range plan for MGT is product and geographic expansion. ShopRite, Fairway, and Jet.com also carry MGT products, and there’s an active online store on the company’s website. Coming next are Mr. Mochi kiosks, which will capitalize on the treat’s convenience and the public’s penchant for grab-and-go foods.
Mr. Green Tea
42 East Front Street, Keyport
732.446.9800 / mrgreentea.com