Detroit native Nailah Ellis-Brown, founder of Ellis Island Tropical Tea, has learned it’s anything but.
We caught up with Ellis-Brown, who is dedicated to making hibiscus tea the way her great grandfather did, to learn how she’s introducing her product to the world one taste bud at a time.
Her entrepreneurial spirit was ignited in grade school, when she attended Nataki Talibah Schoolhouse of Detroit. As part of the learning experience, students could earn Taki-town dollars that they could cash in for items at a Taki-town “store.” Nailah worked the store selling juice and pop and fell in love with the idea of selling items people enjoyed.
“That was in elementary school, but even in middle school, I sold candy out of a huge duffel bag, and I’d sell out every day,” Ellis-Brown explained. “The entrepreneur in me was there very early.”
She attended Howard University in Washington, D.C. and planned to study business, go to Wall Street and later, open a business of her own.
After a couple of semesters, she realized that taking on debt for college and hoping to land a job somewhere seemed just as risky as the prospect of starting her own business. She decided to take a chance and moved back to Michigan where she thought about the delicious hibiscus tea that was the highlight of family gatherings while growing up. The recipe was dear to her great grandfather, Cyril Byron, a Jamaican immigrant who came to America via Ellis Island in the early 1900s.
Near the end of his life, after years of success as a businessman and caterer, he made a request of Nailah’s father: “The recipe is to be sold, not told.” Remembering this, she flew to New York to get the recipe from her dad, but he had no exact measurements, just a little bit of this and a little bit of that. Consequently, she made batches of the tea using various amounts of rosehips, hibiscus and peppermint leaves every day for a year until she got the recipe right.
Once she knew she was able to replicate the family recipe, she made quart-sized bottles in her kitchen and sold them for $8 each.
“I started at an apartment complex near Pallister Street in Detroit, and I sold out every time. I knew if I could sell this tea successfully in a low-income area, I could sell it everywhere,” recalled Ellis-Brown. She made batches at night and went out with a cooler during the day to sell them.
“I didn’t want to hustle, I wanted a real business. I said to myself, ‘I will not go out with this cooler another day’; I have to sell it in a store.”
About three years ago, she got her first break. She approached Avalon International Breads with bottles of her tea that were labeled with taped-on business cards and successfully sold them. But she knew that in order to be licensed, the tea had to be made in a commercial kitchen. She found one at the cross streets of Dexter and Davison, inside a substance abuse residential rehab center.
She remembered meeting the owner during her time working for U.S. Rep. John Conyers and his small business initiative. She contacted the owner and he agreed to let her use the kitchen for free when their chefs weren’t using it. She admitted it was uncomfortable at first, being the only female in an all-male treatment facility, but then it became second nature and she spent as many hours as possible in the kitchen. Eventually, the rehab center’s needs expanded and Ellis-Brown had to move on.
She found a bottler in Auburn Hills who was helping other businesses bottle their products and was introduced to the idea that she could make the tea shelf stable without preservatives. It seemed like a great opportunity, so she placed 6,000 orders to be bottled. Halfway through the order, the owner dropped all of the businesses on her ledger, forcing many business owners to seek a new bottler they could depend on.
She consulted her counselor at the Michigan State Product Development Center in Hart, MI. She was ready to join their incubator that was designed to teach small food and beverage businesses how to package goods.
“I had to learn how to do everything by hand while waiting on commercial-grade equipment to be made. I paid $15 per hour to use the kitchen. I had to pay for hotel stays and also to ship my materials there and back – it was definitely a financial commitment,” she said.
Fast-forward to 2014. With her own facility and equipment in Detroit, she manufactures bottles of tea that feature an official logo, nutrition facts and her company’s commitment to excellence. In June, she had her official grand opening and was even able to convince her schoolteacher husband to focus on growing their business full time, together.
They currently have three part-time employees who have primary jobs elsewhere but are dedicated to work when they can. Every two to four weeks, the staff is at the facility filling 1,000 bottles daily. The line then stops for two weeks, then the next cycle begins.
“We’d love to have a longer list of part-time workers to call on to jump in to help when needed,” she admitted.
If you’re curious about the taste, Ellis-Brown described it as “an antioxidant-rich hibiscus tea with an exotic flavor and color that comes from the blending and infusion of all-natural extracts and botanicals. It’s smooth and flavorful with a kick of citrus.”
The tea has a shelf life of one year, and you don’t have to enjoy it just in its bottled state. There are several creative drinks you can make with the tea, such as the Packard Punch, featuring white wine and mixed fruit, and the Belle Isle, which mixes cognac, simple syrup and lemon!
Ellis Island Tropical Tea is an ode to both her last name and the special place where her great grandfather entered America nearly 100 years ago. You can find these glass bottles of refreshment around Michigan at Whole Foods, Westborn Market, Detroit’s Eastern Market and more for under $4 per bottle. This summer, the tea debuted in both the cafeterias and gift shops of Ellis Island and Liberty Island in New York, and five Chicago Whole Foods markets.
For more information about Ellis Island Tropical Tea and locations to buy, check out their website. You can also get the latest news on Facebook, or follow them on Twitter and Instagram. For part-time job opportunities, contact Nailah Ellis-Brown at (313) 570-0840.