The first time I visited an HTeaO drive-through, I made a rookie mistake. I got only 24 ounces of iced tea. The Amarillo-based tea chain sells far bigger cups–32 ounces, 44 ounces, and the comically large 51 ounces (half your daily recommended water intake in just one drink)—but I stuck with the one I could be sure would actually fit into my car’s cup holder. I questioned my choice almost immediately, when I went to fill up my cup at the pebble-ice machine made by Scotsman, the same company that provides Sonic with its iconic ice makers. HTeaO was clearly not screwing around; this beverage would be even more refreshing than I anticipated. And oh, how it was! My personalized blend of unsweetened regular black with a splash of Ryan Palmer (HTeaO’s version of the classic Arnold Palmer tea-lemonade, this time named after a golfer from Amarillo) was crisp and cooling, with just the right amount of pizzazz. I rationed my 24 measly ounces—two Arizona cans worth of tea—as best I could on the drive back to my downtown Austin office, but they didn’t last long. Worse yet, if I wanted a refill, I’d have to drive half an hour to the closest location, in Cedar Park. “Darnit,” I thought to myself. “I should have gotten 51 ounces.”
There are 32 HTeaO locations in Texas, but having only recently branched out from its Panhandle and West Texas roots, the chain is still in its “if you know, you know” era. That’s about to change: there are hundreds of new franchises under development, both in this state and others. To the unfamiliar, HTeaO might seem like a strange, maybe even boring concept. It’s just an iced-tea restaurant. It’s not a fast-food restaurant with exceptional iced tea; it’s an iced-tea store where you can buy chips and popcorn if you’re as peckish as you are thirsty. But it’s in HTeaO’s simplicity that we find its brilliance.
It may sell only iced tea, but there are 26 flavors of that tea, some sweet, some not. You can mix and match all of them at the self-service dispensers, which means there are hundreds upon hundreds of potential combinations and all you have to do is dream. There’s a fruit bar too, if you want to add fresh strawberries or kiwis to your cup of sweet coconut–blueberry–Georgia peach–mint. It sells tea in gallon jugs and you can buy the proprietary tea bags if you’re adventurous enough to brew at home. Every HTeaO location has a drive-through, which is great for Texas, a place where it is often too hot to put up with the painful transition between air-conditioned car to air-conditioned building then back to your now un-air-conditioned car. It’s not just the pebble ice that HTeaO has borrowed from Sonic; it too has a happy hour from 2 to 4 p.m. during which drinks are half price.
The second time I visited an HTeaO was during said happy hour, when I pulled up to the San Angelo location to see a line of cars so long they almost made a complete circle around the building. The inside was packed too, with a frenzy of enthusiastic West Texans moonlighting as tea chemists. There was a group of teenage girls who seemed to have just finished volleyball practice; one of them proclaimed the new seasonal flavor “strawberry passion” to be her favorite, while the dad who had driven them said he was hooked on sweet coconut. Behind them was a woman in a Whataburger uniform, who looked as though she’d just finished her shift. I saw a ten-ish-year-old kid in a T-shirt that read “The Gospel Is Our Why.” Another man wore no shirt at all, just jean shorts and work boots. (He was clearly overheated; thank God he made it to HTeaO.) Once I filled my own 51-ounce cup (I learned my lesson the first time), I asked the manager, Frank Diaz, if it was always this busy. “During happy hour, absolutely,” he told me before encouraging me to sign up for the HTeaO app. “That way you can earn points and you get a free tea,” he added cheerfully.
It doesn’t take much for HTeaO patrons to become devotees. You see it in the reviews section of any of the franchises’ Facebook pages. (The San Angelo location is swimming in five-star reviews.) You can feel it emanating from the thousands of TikTok videos that are accompanied by the #HTeaO hashtag (here’s my favorite). “We live HTeaO,” said a Seminole, Texas, matriarch named Leigh Ann Soderholtz. “We buy in-store, make it at home, and even mail the tea bags to my mother-in-law.” Diedra Falkenberry is another superfan out west. She wishes there were an HTeaO franchise closer to her hometown of Levelland, but she and her friends have been known to make the 45-minute drive to Lubbock should a particularly strong tea craving strike. On road trips, Falkenberry will look up towns she’s passing through, on the off chance a new HTeaO location has sprung up since they last made the drive. “I, of course, have my favorite teas and my go-to is sweet blueberry green tea. Goodness, that tea is the bomb.”
It’s this passionate fan base that has allowed HTeaO to expand beyond the Panhandle and Permian Basin. The company’s origins date to 2009, when Justin Howe, the son of two Amarillo restaurateurs, opened an iced-tea store after his parents had noticed a steady increase in sales when they added multiple flavors of iced tea to the menu at their restaurant, Buns Over Texas. The first store was called Texas Tea, and the concept was simple: sell a variety of premium iced teas, made with high-quality water via reverse osmosis, a multistep filtration system, and customers will come, because Texans love tea. Howe was successful enough within Amarillo to open a second location in 2014, and while he received inquiries about franchise opportunities early on, Howe wasn’t going to pull the trigger until he could be sure the concept had legs outside of the Panhandle. To test it, he opened a third location in Midland in 2018—just far enough away from Amarillo to be unknown—and changed the name to HTeaO (the Amarillo locations are still called Texas Tea). “If it worked in Midland, we were going to develop the brand as a franchise model,” he says. “We licensed twenty-two locations in the first thirty days.”
Today, there are franchises in Lubbock, Andrews, Pecos, and San Angelo. There are now two in Midland, with another just twenty minutes away in Odessa. There are more in Amarillo, and multiple stores on the outskirts of Dallas, Austin, and San Antonio. HTeaO is even hydrating other states, with locations in Oklahoma, Kansas, and Florida. And that growth isn’t slowing. “We’ve got thirty-two [stores] open, thirty-seven in some phase of construction, and another one hundred and fifty in development,” says Howe. The pace may seem surprising, but he says it’s self-propelling. “We open a store, people start to inquire.” Now they process hundreds of franchise applications a month.
HTeaO isn’t the only Texas drive-through tea chain in expansion mode. There’s also Tea2Go TeaN’ergy (yes, that’s its full name), a Lubbock company with locations as far-flung as Kyle and Fort Worth, with plans to open stores around the Houston area and in the Rio Grande Valley. “By the end of the year, we’ll have thirty locations,” CEO Stephanie Chavez says. Tea2Go TeaN’ergy doesn’t offer quite as many flavors as HTeaO does, and its spin on the concept is more holistic. The motto is “Healthy Tea 4 Healthy Living,” and its advertising materials draw a lot of attention to the homemade energy drinks, powered by the chain’s own “tea-derived” powder, with names like Wonder Woman, Pink Flamingo, and Bahama Mama.
Even Chavez is impressed by HTeaO’s proliferation. “They’ve grown insanely fast, faster than I would recommend,” she says. But HTeaO’s popularity only increases interest in tea drive-throughs of all kinds. “It’s helped everybody in the long run,” she says.
If West Texas’s reaction to iced-tea drive-throughs is any indication, then HTeaO is poised to be as popular and beloved a Texas brand as Buc-ee’s. (That the HTeaO logo features the outline of the state only makes this more likely; I predict its hats and T-shirts will become a proud fashion staple with Texans and Tex-pats alike, just as Buc-ee’s merch has been since its earliest days.)
Leigh Ann Soderholtz’s family has many favorites. Her husband loves the Ryan Palmer and her son, a sophomore in high school, “can drink a gallon of sweet peach tea a day.” And even though the closest HTeaO location is half an hour away in Andrews, she and her family are not the only superfans in Seminole. “My son is doing two-a-days right now, and I was at the football stadium this morning watching practice. I had a cup with me left over from the day before. I go to throw it away and there’s a bunch of other HTeaO cups in the trash.”