Rick Wiman, co-owner of Itapua Trading Co., found the benefits of yerba maté, a South American tea, after years of working overnight shifts drinking various energy drinks and continually feeling dissatisfied. Once he stumbled upon yerba maté more than 10 years ago, Wiman found a product he believed in and eventually saw an opportunity to distribute.
"I started buying it over the Internet and there just wasn't anyone out there doing a good job of selling it plus it cost so much to get. So I started buying cases of it and selling it to friends and what not and I put up a tiny website on the Internet and started selling it on the Internet. I started in my office, then my garage and then some storage buildings and this is our fourth location," Wiman said.
Having known one another for more than 20 years, Costa and Wiman partnered to move Vitamins Plus from Collins Pointe Plaza to their Tennessee Street location earlier this year. A warehouse connected to their storefront is now headquarters for Wiman's online store, which distributes to customers around the world. The American site boasts 13,000 customers since its launch 2001 with its Spanish counterpart counting another 7,000, Wiman said.
"Up to now his products have only been available on the Internet and he has become one of the largest in the country and all over the world selling yerba maté and various other products. So our mission is to introduce his products into the American market," Costa said.
Wiman's partner in Itapua Trading Co. is a Paraguayan businessman, initially a competitor but the two became partners to lend each other their abilities in trading and marketing within their respective countries of origin. Wiman recently visited Paraguay and Argentina touring production facilities with his Itapua partner.
The herbal tea is a part of everyday life for many living in parts of South America, Wiman said. It is brewed and drank in various ways depending upon the culture. Wiman coaches and supplies the accessories needed to consume the drink in any fashion. In South America, loose leaves are combined in a special cup with warm water using a filtered straw to drink the tea.
"Yerba maté is very, very popular in South America -- in Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay. They drink it down there like we drink coffee here and we carry all the major brands from South America. The easiest way to describe it is green tea with a kick. Yerba maté has more beneficial properties but it also has more of a natural kick to it because of the combination of caffeine and theobromine that's in the product. Theobromine is the stuff in chocolate that makes you feel good. When you put those two together you get a nice buzz without the coffee jitters," Wiman said.
Adapting the custom to American tastes, blends of yerba maté with other flavors are created by Wiman and an assistant to be brewed in bags as would traditional hot teas. Yerba maté has already found a strong foothold on the West Coast as a healthy alternative to energy drinks and as a way of life for some.
"In Atlanta you can find it but you have to know where to look. In California it's in every grocery store," Wiman said. "It's coming this way. Oregon and California are two big pockets of yerba maté. They even have stores like coffee shops that just serve yerba maté."
He added that the drink can be found locally but often in a bottled form, heavily processed and far removed from the cultural tradition. The traditional loose leaves as well as the blends tailored for American preferences are available in the store on the Vitamins Plus sample bar as well as for purchase in bulk. Variations include vanilla, cinnamon and chai among other flavors.
"The tea, yerba maté, is an acquired taste. So what Rick does, is he blends the yerba maté with other herbs and spices so people can still get the benefit of the tea," Costa said. "It's 10 times stronger than Chinese tea, it's loaded with antioxidants, chlorophyll and many other trace minerals. It helps with clear thinking ability, a mild detox to the system and it improves your immune system."
Vitamins Plus offers more than 4,000 products in their combined showroom now, including yerba maté teas. The 927-B N. Tennessee St. store is located next to Discount City Furniture and is open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. For more information, call 770-387-0317.
Itapua Trading Co. shares the North Tennessee Street address and hours but can still be ordered online at www.yerbamate.us. For information on yerba maté, Wiman authored a site at www.yerbamatecafe.com detailing its benefits, uses and brewing techniques.