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How a thirst for a better-for-you beverage led to the launch of Healtea

Leila Kairns shares how she built her buzzy brand
Leila Kairns
Leila Kairns. Photography by Chantale Lecours

In 2017, Leila Kairns’s father underwent emergency open heart surgery. He was advised by his doctors to reduce his sugar intake, which meant cutting out the sweet sodas he drank every day. “It was a bad habit he needed to break,” Kairns recalls. “We needed to replace it with something good.”

Shortly after, Kairns, her husband and their three kids went on a camping trip with neighbour Francesco Mancuso and his family. Mancuso is a chef and runs three restaurants in Montreal, where the two families live. Kairns, who was a stay-at-home mom at the time, shared her father’s health condition with Mancuso and her desire to find him a better-for-you drink option. In the middle of their camping trip, Kairns and Mancuso dreamed up an idea for a tasty beverage that would be low in sugar and made with beneficial, natural herbs such as ginger, peppermint and rosemary. 

READ: Four things to know about tea

Mancuso went to work developing drink recipes lightly sweetened with maple syrup and using only lemon juice as a stabilizer. He came up with three flavours: Ginger + Chamomile, Peppermint + Dandelion and Nettle + Rosemary. Meanwhile, Kairns was tasked with figuring out how to start a business. She had a friend at HEC Montréal business school, who helped Kairns develop a business plan. Then Kairns and Mancuso participated in a business fair to get more feedback on their beverage line. “People thought it was an innovative idea and that it tasted great,” Kairns recalls. 

Their next big challenge was finding a manufacturer willing to scale up their recipe for a natural beverage that didn’t use synthetic stabilizers. Kairns registered their new company, now named Healtea, for the Expo Manger Santé, a health food conference in Montreal, in March 2018. Time was ticking to get their products made for the expo, but the producers they reached out to were hesitant about working with their all-natural beverage.

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The setback didn’t dismay Mancuso and Kairns. They continued reaching out to co-packers—nearly 20 in total, before one finally hopped on board. “We had our products ready at 8 p.m. on a Thursday and we were at the Expo Manger Santé by Friday at 9 a.m.,” Kairns explains. Their drinks, again, received rave reviews.

Kairns’s crucial next step was finding buyers for their beverages. “I didn’t know how to commercialize a product,” she says. “So, we just started doing feet on the street.” Kairns went door-to-door, visiting cafés, foodservice locations and local shops in Montreal, eventually landing their first stockist in June 2018: Avril Supermarché—a natural, organic grocer that carried Healtea in six of its stores.

While Mancuso handled production, Kairns was single-handedly responsible for sales, logistics and deliveries. Still, she managed to get Healtea into 400 locations through 2018 and 2019, including cafés, gyms and yoga studios. Kairns was getting ready to launch Healtea in 75 IGA and Metro grocery stores in Quebec when COVID hit. That prevented the duo from hosting product demonstrations in-store. Their major grocery launch didn’t go as planned, says Kairns. On top of that, many of their stockists, such as gyms and cafés, were closed in lockdown.

READ: As Canadians seek something extra from their beverages, functional drinks are thriving

Despite lower-than-anticipated sales, in 2021, Mancuso and Kairns never considered shutting down their business. “We couldn’t stop,” she says. “We thought, ‘this product needs to exist.’” They forged ahead, securing funds from investors, which gave Healtea the means to work with marketing experts for advice on package design and branding. That led to a major rebrand, swapping glass bottles for cans and creating a new logo using bright colours. Healtea also introduced sparkling versions of its flavours. 

By August 2022, the rebranded Healtea hit grocery shelves and the reaction was immediate. Soon after, Kairns launched the beverages into 100 Sobeys stores in Ontario and 14 Whole Foods Market locations across Canada. “It was just ‘yes, yes, yes,’” Kairns says of the post-rebrand push. “It felt great knowing that we had it in us to succeed and we were finally seeing the results.” 

Healtea is now in nearly 1,000 locations, including nine stores of the upscale Californian grocer Erewhon Market. For the rest of 2024, Kairns is focused on getting Healtea into even more grocery stores and foodservice chains. Meanwhile, Mancuso will be busy developing a few flavours to launch before the end of the year. 

For all the positive feedback and new customers Kairns has gained, there’s one customer, in particular, she feels extra proud of—getting her dad to replace his sugary sodas with Healtea. “That’s my biggest success,” Kairns says. “He drinks it every day!” 

This article first appeared in Canadian Grocer’s May 2024 issue.

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