A Potent Brew
At SolidariTEA, social justice is part of the business plan
By Rachel Trachten
For iced-tea entrepreneurs Caroline Sandifer and Trey Jalbert, business success goes hand-in-hand with generosity. As they manage the day-to-day tasks for their company, SolidariTEA, the duo have been steadily donating a portion of their time and earnings to two local organizations, one focused on food justice, the other on expanding access to the arts.
In 2011, the two were working as community organizers for the Oakland chapter of the national climate campaign 350.org when Sandifer suggested to Jalbert—her life partner—that they get to know some of their fellow organizers by inviting them over for cookies and “solidaritea.”
The idea evolved from a gathering to a business plan. Jalbert saw an opening to provide Bay Area bottled iced tea lovers a high-end, small-farm option, while Sandifer pondered how to structure the company in a way that could include giving back to the community while avoiding burdensome rules and paperwork. “We wanted to tie in a piece of our margin to go back to local groups,” says Jalbert. “We thought our customers would get behind this.”
Two years later, Jalbert and Sandifer launched SolidariTEA, offering locally made teas along with a commitment to support and partner with local nonprofits.
100 Pounds of Roses
The duo, now both 33, are avid cooks and bakers. Experimenting in their home kitchen, they developed three flavorful low-sugar teas: Black Rose Ceylon, Blueberry Rooibos, and Cinnamon Peach. They took the manufacturing work to H.A. Rider & Sons, a family-owned, solar-powered bottling facility in Santa Cruz County, where workers brew the tea and send the used tea leaves and botanicals out for composting at nearby farms.
The two visit the facility regularly to ensure that the production process meets their expectations. “You see what 100 pounds of roses looks like,” says Jalbert. “The whole facility smells magical. When we’re brewing the cinnamon tea, it’s invigorating; you can feel the cinnamon and the oils in the air.”
Because not all their ingredients are available locally, Sandifer and Jalbert seek small-farm suppliers who work with Equal Exchange, a cooperative that partners with worker-owned, democratically organized farms. The teas are certified organic by Oregon Tilth.
The duo earmarks 10 cents per bottle sold for their two Oakland-based nonprofit partners: community arts space Rock Paper Scissors Collective (RPSC) and food justice program Roots Rising, an offshoot of People’s Grocery. To date, SolidariTEA has raised $5,250 for each organization. The funds come with minimal strings attached, allowing the groups to use the money for hard-to-fund expenses like supplies and administration.
With SolidariTEA, We’re Like Family
“There’s not a lot of funding for the arts,” says crafter Kristi Holohan, who organizes classes, skill shares, and exhibits for RPSC. “Grants are very competitive, and there are many nonprofits doing amazing work.”
Her collective has evolved into a beloved organization that nurtures community activism and brings arts opportunities to Oakland children, teens, refugees, and others who may not be able to pay for classes or materials. Offerings include painting, jewelry-making, sewing, collage, and silkscreen, just for starters. After losing its brick-and-mortar space on Telegraph Avenue in 2015, RPSC has continued to hold classes and events by collaborating with museums, schools, libraries, community groups, and local artists. At MetWest High School in Oakland, the group runs a community garden and cooking classes. They’re now housed in a temporary space at Warehouse 416 and are in negotiations for a permanent one.
The partnership with SolidariTEA started when the new tea biz popped up to do tastings at the collective’s former site. “With SolidariTEA, we’re like family; they want to know what kind of programming we’re doing and what’s going on with us,” says Holohan. She notes that Sandifer and Jalbert show up for art events and meetings, help with website improvements, and donate their caffeine-free Blueberry Rooibos tea for after-school classes. Thanks to SolidariTEA, the collective has had funds for rent, supplies, and administrative costs. The group’s organizers are volunteers, but they prioritize paying teaching artists whenever possible.
It’s Not McDonald’s Sweet Tea
Over at Roots Rising, SolidariTEA has made its mark as well. An offshoot of People’s Grocery, Roots Rising continued the food and economic justice program pioneered by that organization in the garden of the California Hotel, an affordable housing development in West Oakland. (People’s Grocery has gone through a transition in leadership, and the Center for Third World Organizing became its fiscal sponsor in 2016.) In 2017, SolidariTEA shifted its funding from People’s Grocery to Roots Rising to support the continuation of the garden-based California Hotel program, which is run by occupational therapist Heather Smith.
“They understood our angle,” says Smith, referring to SolidariTEA’s support for her focus on personal empowerment. Rather than just give food away, Smith taught participants to grow their own fruits and veggies and to use diet and medicinal herbs to help control diabetes and high blood pressure. In the garden, Smith served SolidariTEA, a lower-sugar option than participants were accustomed to. “It’s not McDonald’s sweet tea; it’s healthy, it’s natural, it’s good food,” she says. Funding from SolidariTEA allowed her to purchase garden supplies like compost and straw, as well as beekeeping equipment. For now, the Roots Rising program has ended and its future is uncertain. As SolidariTEA seeks a new nonprofit partner, it is shifting donations towards Rock Paper Scissors with the goal of giving that group a total of $18,000.
A Model and a Challenge
Are more tea flavors on the horizon? Sandifer and Jalbert aren’t ready to share many details, but they have ideas brewing for a green tea beverage. Sandifer also has several other creative projects—she writes poetry and is co-authoring a children’s story. Jalbert is a part-time researcher at UCSF Medical Center, where he develops imaging related to brain cancer. He says he appreciates the counterbalance to hospital work that comes with being part of the organic food field. The two are often on the road, holding tastings and managing operations for SolidariTEA, which is now available at Market Hall Foods, Piedmont Grocery, Whole Foods, and many other Bay Area stores.
Kristi Holohan of Rock Paper Scissors sees the potential impact of a business like SolidariTEA. “It’s a model and a challenge for other companies to step up and see how much we can support and nurture our existing community,” she says, “especially in a time when housing costs are skyrocketing and OUSD [Oakland Unified School District] is under enormous budget constraints. How can we assist the local community to thrive here and not get pushed out of here? I really praise SolidariTEA for stepping up to the plate.” ♦
Cinnamon Peach Toaster Pastries
Mom insisted on only healthy snacks in the house, so SolidariTEA cofounder Caroline Sandifer grew up with no Kellogg’s Pop-Tarts in the cupboard. After indulging in the forbidden packaged toaster pastries during college, Caroline started experimenting with her own healthier versions, coming up with recipes mom would be proud of, like this one made with whole wheat and SolidariTEA Cinnamon Peach Tea.
For the dough
1½ cups whole-wheat flour
1½ cups all-purpose flour
12/3 cups cold salted butter, chopped into chunks
1 egg, lightly beaten
1/3 cup cinnamon peach bottled black tea
For peach filling
1/3 cup cinnamon peach bottled black tea (plus a few tablespoons more as needed)
2½ cups chopped ripe peaches (or chopped and thawed frozen peaches)
¼ cup packed brown sugar
½ teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon cornstarch
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
For basic topping
1 egg white, lightly beaten with
½ teaspoon water
1 tablespoon brown sugar mixed with
½ teaspoon cinnamon
For a more decadent glaze topping
5 teaspoons butter
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 cup powdered sugar
1–3 teaspoons cinnamon peach bottled black tea
To make the dough: Place the whole-wheat and all-purpose flours into a large bowl. Using knives or a pastry cutter, gradually work in the butter until the dough has a coarse, sandy texture. Add the lightly beaten egg and the tea, and work lightly with your hands just until the dough is combined and pliable.
Divide dough in two parts and form into balls. Wrap each ball separately in plastic wrap, waxed paper, or tinfoil. Gently flatten balls with the palm of your hand and allow to cool in the fridge for at least 30 minutes as you make the filling. (Colder dough is easier to work with.)
To make the peach filling: Combine peaches and tea in a medium saucepan. Cover and bring to a gentle boil, then remove cover, lower heat, and let simmer.
Meanwhile, combine brown sugar, cinnamon, ginger, and cornstarch in a small bowl. Add vanilla plus a couple tablespoons of the bottled tea, stirring well until you get a smooth, thin paste, adding more tea as necessary. Add gradually to the simmering peaches as you stir, then let the filling simmer, stirring occasionally, for 15 minutes, until fruit has softened and juice has thickened. (The filling will continue to thicken as it cools.)
To assemble tarts: Preheat the oven to 350° as you roll out the dough.
On a floured surface, roll each ball of dough out to 1/8-inch thick. Cut the dough into 8 rectangles per ball for large pastries or 12 rectangles for smaller ones. Spoon the peach-tea filling onto half of the cut rectangles, dividing filling equally and spreading outward, leaving a margin of at least ¼ inch on all edges of the rectangles.
Lay the remaining rectangles over the filling and seal the edges by crimping with the tines of a fork.
If making tarts with basic topping: Brush the top of each tart with beaten egg white, then dust with a mixture of brown sugar and cinnamon. Bake the pastries on a parchment-covered cookie sheet for 25–30 minutes until the edges are golden brown. Cool completely.
If you want the more decadent topping: Omit brushing with egg white and cinnamon sugar. Instead, brush the tops of each pastry with leftover cinnamon peach tea, and bake as above while mixing the glaze.
Simmer butter in a small saucepan until froth forms, then cool for 10 minutes. Stir in the vanilla, cinnamon, powdered sugar, and cinnamon peach tea. Adjust amount of tea for desired thickness. After pastries are baked, drizzle the glaze over top.