In February, while Sabrina Greenberg lunched with her husband, Jared, in Miami Beach, she wasn’t just surprised that her smoothie’s beige straw didn’t get soggy as she sipped away — Greenberg tasted an entrepreneurial opportunity.
"Immediately, I told Jared that we had to bring this straw up to New York," Greenberg said. "It would blow up in sales."
The manufacturer’s name, Greenprint, was on the straw. Jared Greenberg found its contact information on the web and, within an hour, ReptheUS LLC, which the Greenbergs and their partners own in Rockville Centre, became the Northeast distributor of the straws and Greenprint’s disposable cutlery, said Jared Greenberg, a founder and the chief operating officer of the 13-year-old marketing and distribution firm.
Manufactured in Monterey, Mexico, the biodegradable pieces resemble plastic in texture but are made from the agave plant that Jose Cuervo, the world’s largest tequila company, uses in its production of tequila, Greenberg said. After Jose Cuervo boils the agave and removes its juice to make tequila, the byproduct is a residual fibrous material called "bagasse," which Greenprint then fabricates into its straws and cutlery. The agave product line is USDA certified and FDA approved, according to RTUS’ website.
Other food service suppliers, such as Sysco and AvoplastiQs, also market agave straws.
As the green movement has gained momentum, many eateries have replaced plastic straws with paper ones.
Since 2019, Sea Cliff Village has outlawed plastic straws at food establishments to protect its beachfront and other natural resources. While Suffolk County began limiting plastic straws last year, New York City’s plastic straw restrictions are set to start Nov. 1. Other jurisdictions around the country — including Seattle, Portland, Miami Beach, Washington, D.C., and California — have also moved to curtail plastic straws.
A straw with an image
Bari Kearns, owner with her husband, Gregory Kearns, of the six-year-old Copperhill restaurant in Williston Park, said she signed on to RTUS’ agave straws for a range of reasons, including they dovetail with her restaurant’s image and commitment to sustainability. And unlike the paper varieties, she said, the agave straws don’t get soggy and detract from enjoyment of a special drink.
"We have a $14 craft cocktail, and once a paper straw dissolves in the mouth, it’s not a pleasant experience," Kearns said.
Since March, RTUS’ revenues from agave wares have surpassed $100,000, Greenberg said. It counts restaurants, hotels and other distributors among its more than 120 accounts, with 17 customers in Nassau County, including Dirty Taco and Tequila in Rockville Centre, Wantagh and Woodbury, and 18 in Suffolk, including Hatch in Huntington and the Northfork Inn in Southold, according to Greenberg.
Permitted to market Greenprint’s products beyond the Northeast, RTUS also supplies businesses elsewhere in the country, including in Denver, Atlanta, Orlando and Dallas, Greenberg noted.
At the outset, the Greenbergs had envisioned incorporating the agave straws and cutlery into RTUS’ longtime niche advertising business, which prints the name of clients — including flower shops and real estate agencies — on items like coffee sleeves and packaging tape, and distributes them. Recipient businesses receive the products for free.
"When the straws came along, we needed larger companies to advertise because of the volume Greenprint required us to buy. So we started just selling the straws and flatware," Greenberg said.
3 cents vs. a penny
Prices of RTUS’ individually wrapped agave straws are just below three cents each, Greenberg said.
Plastic straws, by comparison, average "less than a penny" each, and paper straws are two cents each, according to calculations by Eddie Fahmy, president of A2Z Restaurant Consulting LLC in Great Neck.
"Always, in any business, every penny counts" Fahmy said. "But certain things are worth the price – and if you’re selling 10,000 drinks and multiply that by a penny, it’s not a substantial difference in operating costs."
Greenberg said that with RTUS’ agave flatware "definitely on the higher-end of cutlery," costing about 32 cents per wrapped set, it has won over high-end restaurants, but not delis.
"Delis do more volume, but the higher-end places have higher profit margins to absorb the cost," Greenberg said.
While RTUS’ largest challenge has been persuading restaurants to switch from their existing vendors, Greenberg attributed his firm’s inroads to a convergence of factors, including Suffolk County and New York City banning plastic straws and the green movement resonating with high-profile eateries.
At the outset, RTUS, which had spent $50,000 to stock agave products, also benefited from restaurants having "difficulty getting supplies" from wholesalers.
Taking a quasi-grassroots marketing approach, the Greenbergs and their RTUS partners — Alison Lozito and cousins Jason and David Greenberg — have drummed up business through cold calling and pitching the straws to restaurants they personally patronize. Its first customer for agave products was Larkfield, an East Northport establishment co-owned by one of Jared Greenberg’s friends.
Copperhill’s Bari Kearns said she purchased the agave straws after Greenberg, who has eaten at her restaurant often with his wife, sent her a message on Instagram about RTUS’ offerings and then gave her samples.
With an environmental consciousness helping to fuel its growth, RTUS is paying it forward. In August, through the nonprofit reforestation charity One Tree Planted, the company began donating 100 trees for every 1 million straws it sells.