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Meet Tiffany Scalia of Erva Yerba Mate Blends in East LA

Today we’d like to introduce you to Tiffany Scalia.

So, before we jump into specific questions about the business, why don’t you give us some details about you and your story.
I pretty much grew up in a food stand. There’s a picture of me as a baby, climbing on top of a box of potatoes with my dad holding me proudly. I’m 28 and have a solid 20 years of experience in the food-vending industry, thanks to my parents’ own entrepreneurship and determination to instill in their children a “solid work ethic.” The rush of adrenaline that comes from food service work combined with the opportunity to travel the country turns out to be hard for me to walk away from as a recent college grad trying to figure out what to do with my life. In 2012, two close friends and I follow the call of life on the road and launch a farm-to-festival mobile restaurant called 99 Potatoes. We supply the country’s biggest music festivals with grass-fed organic burgers, gluten-free soy-free veggie burgers, fresh-cut sweet potato and curly fries, and Erva – our delicious blend of ginger, lime, and yerba mate. We have the experience of a lifetime, seeing some of the country’s most beautiful farmland and connecting local farmers to the festival supply chain. After our second summer season, we get back from tour and have a weekly gig lined up at a brand-new farmers’ market in downtown Los Angeles, at the flower market.

Then begins the existential questioning – with the Potatoes spread out all over the country, it’s only me and my rather-recent boyfriend in LA. Are we crazy to start working together a year into knowing each other? (The answer is yes, and since we’re just the right amount of crazy, we jump right in.) We’re passionate about food and all, but are we really going to try to make a name for ourselves as pop-up chefs in Los Angeles? (Spoiler alert: nope.) I’m a woman of my word though, and I had told Susan, the manager, I would be at this market. What was LA missing? What could we offer? Then we have an idea. Let’s try concentrating on Erva – our ginger-mate-limeade — like a grown-up lemonade stand! That way, we can share the amazing power of yerba mate that we have fallen so in love with, with the community that we call home. It’ll help people with their hustle, and keep them happy. It suddenly felt like a very important and necessary task to share this elixir with all of the dreamers, movers, and shakers of Los Angeles.

We take our VEGGIE BURGERS banner, flip it over, and enlist the help of my multi-talented roommate from college, Andrea, to paint GINGER-MATE LIMEADE on the blank side. As we’re talking through the set-up of our booth, I have another idea. What if we also sell it in big bottles that people can refill, so they can have the joy of yerba mate not just on Saturdays, but throughout the whole week, and save lots of money and wasteful packaging in the process?

The first week at the market, we sell about two gallons of GML (as we lovingly nicknamed it), and three refillable bottles. Now, GML is a little different and goes by the name of “ginger-lime.” Ginger-lime is in good company with our best-selling hibiscus-lemon, as well as two other blends of fresh fruit and herbs, and one seasonal blend. About 30% of our sales now come from refills, and our newly-launched refill rewards program is putting us at the forefront of sustainability in the beverage industry. Our team has grown to eight wonderful people who help us in the office, in the kitchen, and at different events and farmers’ markets around Southern California. We brew and distribute about 300 gallons a week during our busy season, and are proud to offer looseleaf versions of our blends so people can drink them in the traditional mate-style with a bombilla, or make their own cold-brew to their liking.

It makes sense that yerba mate is known as a “friendship tea.” There are an optimism and clarity that comes after drinking mate that I haven’t found in anything else and I’m convinced that if everyone drank yerba mate every day, the world would be a much happier place. I am so grateful for the beautiful and supportive friendships that brought yerba mate into my life and allowed Erva to grow- I think the path we’ve been able to forge with their influence is the best honor and respect we could pay to the yerba mate plant.

Great, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
The road has not been the smoothest. Finding a commercial kitchen space was our first challenge. I remember having to create a makeshift bottling operation in the driveway of our first shared kitchen space, as it was too small to accommodate all of the food businesses signed up to share it. Now that we’ve outgrown our current kitchen, looking for a bigger brew facility has been difficult. Just today, I was on the phone with a condescending realtor who cut me off and hung up.

Also, not knowing the best way to present our product, and who to introduce it to led us to some farmers’ markets whose visitors weren’t really ready for mate – there were a few days where we went home in the negative after paying the nominal $40 market fee.

Once we did figure out where our people were and started to expand, we had to find a way to produce 100’s of gallons of mate and distribute it to five or six events in one weekend — a great problem, but has meant many 20-hour days with a team of hangry, under-slept people.

All in all, these challenges have forced us to innovate, be scrappy, and trust each other, which I think is really going to pay off in the long-run, and in some ways, already has.

Please tell us about Erva Yerba Mate Blends.
At Erva, we specialize in crafting uniquely rejuvenating, refreshing, and energizing cold-brewed yerba mate teas. At farmers’ markets and events, we are known as “the Awesome Tea People” – the people to see when you’re parched or want a friendly chat, or perhaps especially, both.

We are most proud of our ability to introduce peoples’ palates to yerba mate in the form of a delicious drink in joyful settings. Yerba mate has a bit of a reputation for tasting “bitter” or “grassy,” and we are able to brew it and combine it with other flavors in such a way as to make it tasty and crave-able. This ability allows people to appreciate the wonderful effects yerba mate has on mind and body, thereby introducing them to another way of experiencing the world. Our proudest moments are when people share with us that they now prefer the positive uplift they get from yerba mate to the jittery buzz they get from coffee.

What sets us apart from other yerba mate teas is 1) the respect we pay to the herb in our brew process- we do not use an extract or a concentrate, just real, fresh-brewed mate, and 2) our disinterest in being another bottle on a shelf. We have a saying – “health life, not shelf life.” We want to change the way people think about their purchasing habits by encouraging them to refill our bottles (or ones they already own) at our taps in health food stores and restaurants.

Do you look back particularly fondly on any memories from childhood?
Growing up, I worked on a horse farm in exchange for lessons. One day, I was assisting in a class when a pony I had helped train was giving his rider a really hard time. The rule was we always had to wear a helmet while riding, but my instructor made an exception and asked me to jump the course with him without my helmet. Connecting with the horse and jumping those fences with the wind in my hair was just the best feeling in the world.

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Image Credit:

Danielle Rouillard, Joel Hindman, Martin Guzman

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