Kyle Chandler of Centereach spent a chunk of his time this past decade hanging around craft beer brewers.
You would typically find him volunteering or getting paid to work booths at festivals, where a lot beer-drinking went down.
But he noticed something on those hot, hazy days:
There weren’t any non-alcoholic drink options, other than water.
“I’d be like, man, I wish there was something else to drink,” he recalled.
The then-engineer at Northrop Grumman began to wonder about filling a void, as so many future entrepreneurs do.
He wanted to offer the public a non-beer craft drink alternative.
The germs of The Subtle Tea Company began to take root.
Today, Subtle Tea products are now available at 180 markets, supermarkets and restaurants across Nassau and Suffolk counties, and New York City. In 2019, the company moved brewing and bottling operations from the Calverton Business Incubator to a warehouse in Ronkonkoma.
There, the company recently set up a 400-gallon kettle, and has worked to automate their processes as best as possible. Gone are the days of nighttime labeling parties at Chandler’s house with buddies and beer.
“We’d have pizza and beer and label bottles with five or six friends,” he said. “It would take us hours to label 1,400 bottles in a night.
“Then I’d be like, ‘Hey we’re going to brew another night,’ and my friends were like, ‘Nah we’re not showing up two days a week.”
But the demand was there. The demand grew.
Chandler eventually had to make moves to fulfill his vision of offering organic iced tea and lemonade drinks with no preservatives or artificial flavors, brewed and bottled right here on Long Island. Among them, he had to leave his job at Grumman in Bethpage.
“That’s when things started to take traction,” he said. “Now all of a sudden [at the new warehouse] we’re doing eight times the amount of liquid in the same amount of time.”
Subtle Tea is fast becoming a household name on Long Island.
story continues below photo
Chandler couldn’t get his idea for a craft iced tea product off his mind. There was one problem, though: He didn’t know anything about making tea.
So he did what engineers are able to do. That is, shut out the noise and focus. And experiment. And be patient. And repeat.
He recalls rushing to Teavana in Lake Grove and dumping a boatload of money on tea. Then it was off to Bed Bath & Beyond in Smithtown to gather some equipment. One of his beer brewer friends, Chris Dolan, now the head brewer at BrickHouse Brewery, spotted him there.
Chandler was holding infusers, filters, a tea timer, and other items.
“I brought all my 20 percent off coupons,” he said. “Then I ran into Chris and his wife. I’m holding all this stuff and Chris was like, ‘What are you doing?’’ Chandler recalled.
“I said, I think I’m starting a tea company.”
Working until the brink of sunrise doesn’t exactly come by choice when you’re experimenting with tea. That’s what an ungodly amount of caffeine will do to someone.
“There was the type of tea, steep time, the amount of sugar,” he said. “I’d drink like three gallons a night.” And he’d be wired.
“Then I’d be sitting wondering if I should do laundry or something,” he added with a laugh.
heading to market
Kyle was finally happy with his tea.
He was also especially excited about the name Subtle Tea that his friend had suggested. Surprisingly the name wasn’t already in use.
He found a guy who sold bottles. Another buddy designed the label.
Soon, he was clutching his first bottle of Subtle Tea.
“I held the bottle and was like, this is what it’s going to look like,” he said. “I was like, ‘Wow this is cool.’”
That was mid-2014. He was selling cases of tea by the end of the year.
In the meantime, Chandler headed to his first beer and wine festival in Peconic. He made $31 that he still keeps in a filing cabinet.
a family affair
Chandler’s father, John, had run his own business for most of his life, making custom cabinetry in upstate New York, as well as furniture. He saw the value in his son fulfilling his own dreams here on Long Island.
“Kyle came and asked me if he should go for it,” John recalled. “I said you’d be a fool not to.”
John Chandler has been helping with the company ever since.
John’s now-many titles with Subtle Tea include Brewmaster, Chief Cook and Bottle Washer, VP of Operations — if you want to get fancy — and perhaps most importantly, Founder’s Dad.
It was his dad’s and friends’ steady help and moral and emotional support that allowed Kyle to eventually leave his full-time job in September 2017.
“It was scary,” said Kyle, now 38.
“The day job gets in the way,” John said. “But you do give up a lot of security.”
“At the same time, I was very fortunate that people believed in me,” Kyle said. “I had a good job at Grumman that allowed me to save and setup, but I didn’t have a lot to start with. We’ve been bootstrapping this thing for the beginning. And now it’s starting to pay for itself.”
Kyle and his team somehow seem to hit every street festival on Long Island, with their recognizable, wood-made serving booth that looks like a puppet theater without the curtains.
There’s typically a well-branded van parked behind them.
The team is growing at Subtle Tea. It now includes Cary Smith of St. James, who’s making a hard push in 2020 to get Subtle Tea into more outlets across the tri-state area, as the business plan shifts away from the cost and labor-intensive festival racket.
The good news for Subtle Tea fans is that flavors like Sweetless, Peach-Brewed Lemonade and Green Apricot Orange will become more readily available across Long Island.
Smith’s a believer in the product, calling it perfect for those looking to practice clean eating, thanks to its lack of artificial anything.
“We’re not an everyday tea company,” she said. “We have a product here that is super clean that we hope will be offered for a long, long time.”
A big goal for Kyle is to build a big company that’s able to produce jobs for local people. (Northrop Grumman had migrated thousands of job off the island, so he’s sensitive to this.)
“We really want to create a sustainable business that cares about the community, and the environment,” he said. “We also want to be able to provide jobs for the community. We want to be able to support their families. That’s really the American Dream.”
Top: Kyle Chandler, Cary Smith and John Chandler at The Subtle Tea Company’s new headquarters in Ronkonkoma, near their new 400-gallon vessel. (Michael White)