Hoop Tea founder Danny Robinson turns beach experiment into a thriving business
Danny Robinson’s life was neatly planned and laid out. He majored in political science at Iona College (N.Y.) in the early 1980s, and he was going to become a big-shot lawyer in the Big Apple.
Then something unexpected happened — he discovered he hated the thought of being a lawyer.
“All it took was to do an internship at a law firm to discourage me from ever becoming a lawyer,” Robinson says. “Actually, it also discouraged me from having any kind of 9-5 job. I saw guys in New York still spending hours on the subway every day in that rat race and quickly realized it wasn’t for me.
“So, now I always tell people that I work 80 hours a week to avoid a 40-hour work week.”
Those long hours are spent doing something he loves in a place he loves — Robinson is the owner and operator of Backshore Brewing Co., in Ocean City, Md., and he helped create its signature alcoholic brews, Hoop Tea.
Robinson first came to Ocean City during college and would head to the Maryland beach resort annually to work as a bartender.
“And after doing that for four summers, I had no desire to go back to New York,” he says.
Robinson “saved his pennies” from his bartending gigs, and in 2005 he opened a restaurant-bar on the boardwalk between 9th and 10th streets. He called it Hammerheads on the Beach.
Robinson also wanted to get into the micro-brewing business, so he rented a small ice cream shop next door and converted it to Backshore Brewing, producing just four kegs of beer at a time.
In 2015, he switched from beer to tea-based drinks and the rest is history — not to mention geography. Robinson, 49, has lived in Ocean City for the last 30 years and he and his long-time girlfriend can’t imagine living anywhere else.
By the way: The unusual name of “Hoop Tea’’ was inspired by Robinson’s 1966 Volkswagen bus, which has become the company’s unofficial mascot. In urban slang, a “hooptie’’ is a beat-up old car, so Robinson thought it appropriate to name his new business endeavor Hoop Tea.
For more information on Hoop Tea brands and where you can purchase its products, go to HoopTea.com.
O&A: You started out brewing beer. How and why did you switch to alcoholic tea-based beverages?
Robinson: To be honest, I quickly got bored with beer. And being on the beach and with an ocean-front location, I said maybe heavy craft beer is not what people are 100 percent looking for. They would have a beer or two, then go next door for a cocktail. So, I said, “We manufacture beer here, so let’s do something else that’s beer based.”
O&A: You could have gone in a lot of different directions. Why tea?
Robinson: Being in a southern location and just being in a summertime spot, I thought iced tea was the best idea to start with. And the sky’s the limit with tea, because there are so many variants of tea leaves and all sorts of fruits and flavors with tea, so there was room for a lot of experimentation there.
O&A: Was it hard to get beer drinkers to switch to your teas?
Robinson: Not at all. At first, we were just having fun with it in the brewery, and then when the consumers tried it, they just started flocking to the brewery asking for these tea concoctions we were brewing.
O&A: How did it expand from there?
Robinson: After the first year, I said, “Let’s start distributing it to bars in the neighborhood,” and as soon as that happened it just exploded.
Tourists were coming into town, and on any given weekend there was a half-million people sampling our teas at bars around town, and immediately we started getting calls from surrounding states like New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and D.C., and they were asking ‘Hey, what is this Hoop Tea? We have customers coming to our bar or coming to our store asking if they can buy it here.’
So, right off the bat I knew we had an opportunity here, because people were walking into liquor stores and there are thousands of brands to buy and they’re asking for this one they tasted in Ocean City. That’s when I said that we were onto something here.”
O&A: Was there a concern that your production couldn’t match the demand?
Robinson: Absolutely. And that’s when we decided to start scaling up our production, which clearly couldn’t be done four kegs at a time at our little brewery at the beach. So, we started contracting with other breweries and now we have three others, and one of the ones we contracted with is in Little Creek in Delaware. So, technically, a good percentage of our production in done in Delaware and we’re proud of that — it’s a good place to do business and it’s worked out for us.
O&A: How do you come up with your different flavors?
Robinson: Initially, we were flying by the seat of our pants. That’s why we’re in this business, because it’s fun to do things like that, it’s fun to experiment, and throwing paint at the canvas is the fun part. But, once you need to reproduce things and make it on a large scale, that’s when we get serious. So, it’s a little of both — we kind of haphazardly throw these things together, and then when it’s time to scale it up, that’s when we get scientific, because it’s important to have a consistent product that’s shelf stable. Basically, what we do is innovate dangerously, but execute carefully.
O&A: What was your first big seller?
Robinson: Believe it or not, the first tea we ever produced is still our No. 1 seller today – our Mango Tea with white tea leaves. I don’t know how we nailed it on our first try, but that is our No. 1 seller. We have a product — American Original — which is just southern-style sweet tea that’s quickly catching up, because a lot of bars are mixing it with flavored vodkas and that sort of thing, but our Mango is still our No. 1 seller.
O&A: Was there a concern that your heavy beach theme would handicap you when it came to marketing your product away from the beach?
Robinson: We used to think that was a limiting factor for us, but we quickly realized this is who we are, and people love us because of the authenticity of the brand.
We literally live at the beach — we ride our bicycles to work and we’re looking out at the ocean while we’re making these recipes. Why try to hide that?
There was a time when we thought it would be good to pretend that we’re something different than we are or bigger than we are, something bigger than a beach brand. But it’s not necessary — that’s why people love us.
O&A: You’re already selling your product in Maryland, Delaware, New York, New Jersey and Washington, D.C. Now you’re expanding into Florida. Is there a danger that you’re stretching too far from your home base?
Robinson: It’s a challenge when you extend your forces and your resources that far, but we didn’t do it haphazardly.
The brand was really pulling itself into Florida. We just looked at the data of our inquiries on emails and social media and there was an inordinate amount of people inquiring about when we were going to come to Florida. And it made sense — No. 1, it’s an enormous state and, No. 2, it has nice weather year-round. We tend to do well at outdoor activity spots, so Florida is just a perfect fit for us.
We’re starting in Key West and working our way north and, so far, Key West is working out incredibly well. We’re already looking into opening a small brew house there, as well.