A Grove City College student is helping farmers in Haiti, one bottle of tea at a time.
Mark Sotomayor founded Treecup about two years ago; his handcrafted brews benefit Haiti Friends, a nonprofit that helps with a reforestation program.
“Every bottle plants one tree,” he said.
Sotomayor, 21, is an entrepreneurship major entering his senior year. His parents are from Peru, where his grandmother Vitalia Montez still lives. He continues to be inspired by his grandmother and her special tea recipe.
“She thinks it’s great. She hopes it grows,” he said of Treecup.
He lives in Evans City, where his product was first introduced to the public during “Living Dead Weekend” in 2017. The annual event celebrates George A. Romero’s zombie movie, “Night of the Living Dead,” which was filmed in Evans City.
“It was very serendipitous,” he said of how things fell into place.
People enjoyed the tea samples, and the first blend that Sotomayor perfected was a Peruvian chai green tea based on his grandmother’s recipe.
“That’s the one that started it all,” he said.
His grandmother serves the tea hot, and his mother, Vitalia Sotomayor, makes it cold. He has fond memories of their kitchens making the whole house smell like cinnamon and cloves.
His Peruvian Chai is similar to a typical chai but a bit “stripped down” and not as spicy. Treecup has five other cold teas that feature ingredients including juniper berries, spearmint, jasmine, and turmeric, and most of his organic ingredients come from local businesses like the Pittsburgh Spice Company.
“They’re all very different,” he said of the tea flavors.
One bottles costs about $4, and some of the teas are unsweetened. The sweetened ones are made with organic cane sugar or stevia.
The business started in his home kitchen, and Sotomayor knew that he wanted to attach a social cause to the product.
He met Dr. David Brauer, and entrepreneur professor-in-residence at Westminster College, New Wilmington, who told him about Haiti Friends. Brauer has served as a board member of the organization, which has a Pittsburgh office.
“‘Buy a tea, plant a tree,’” he said of his first thought.
Haiti Friends has planted about 2 million trees, and Treecup has funded about 10,000 of those trees, which are all planted on farmland.
“It’s a force for change,” he said, noting that more consumers are looking for products that benefit the environment.
Forty cents from each bottle of Treecup tea goes to Haiti Friends. Sotomayor visited Haiti this summer with his mother to check out the tree reforestation project.
They helped a team plant about 4,000 trees, and the experience was wonderful, considering Haiti Friends does so much with just a dozen employees, he said.
“It was amazing and it was a lot to wrap my head around,” Sotomayor said.
He is happy to share his story and educate people about Haiti Friends, often connecting with people at the places where Treecup is sold.
He’s a vendor at the Slippery Rock Farmers Market, and Market Square in Pittsburgh. Treecup is also sold at shops and restaurants in Saxonburg, Evans City, Zelienople, Butler, Pittsburgh and more.
Grove City locations include Coffaro’s Pizza and Sweet Jeanie’s. It can also be ordered online.
The response has been positive, and Sotomayor has even converted people who thought they didn’t like tea.
There’s something for everyone, and trying out new recipes has been a fun challenge. He currently brews tea in kitchen space he rents from the Evans City VFW, and there has been some trial and error.
A blend of citrus and chamomile didn’t turn out well, but he is proud of the Peruvian Chai. Some of his cousins filmed their grandmother making her tea, which has been a big help.
His mother has also provided a lot of support, like working on Treecup’s invoicing and accounts, and brewing tea while he’s in class.
“Last year she did 10,000 bottles,” he said of his mother, who also works as a medical office administrator for Allegheny Health Network.
Sotomayor hopes to expand the business after he graduates and add more varieties. He’s in talks right now to use a shared commercial space in Pittsburgh with other food and beverage entrepreneurs.
He likes the history behind tea, and wants to share what he’s learned by offering a quality product that will have a lasting impact through Haiti Friends.
“It’s almost hard to define,” he said of his love of tea.
For more information about Treecup, visit www.treecuptea.com or “Treecup Tea” on Facebook, or call 724-991-1326.
To learn more about Haiti Friends, visit haitifriends.org