In 2014, the Opportunity Detroit Blog introduced you to Nailah Ellis-Brown, an entrepreneur who turned a 100-year-old family recipe into a budding business, honoring her great grandfather’s wish that “the recipe is to be sold and not told.”
Since then, she’s endured what many entrepreneurs face once they get something off the ground – growing pains, self-realization, a product identity crisis and a bottom line that must be met. When the pressure is on, some folks throw in the towel, but Ellis-Brown found herself immersed in situations that only reignited her desire to succeed. From receiving first-hand guidance from renowned professionals, to competing on a TV show that challenged her chops, to traveling abroad with peers via a prestigious distinction, these experiences have taken this native Detroiter to new heights.
We caught up with Ellis-Brown to discuss what the last few years have meant for her business and how an unwavering fire to pursue her dreams are propelling her burgeoning Detroit business into a national household name.
VA: Congratulations on becoming Queen Boss, tell us what that experience was like!
NEB: Queen Boss was definitely an experience – it was fun – I never experienced anything like it in my life! I came in with a goal to win – I didn’t sign up to compete to just win $25,000, I just wanted to compete and win against women in New York, who are typically known for their hustle, and I wanted to come back and say Detroit hustles harder, and that’s what I got the most excitement out of. It was intimidating because the other competitors were from the area, they knew the surroundings and I had no clue about the challenges we would be doing, so I came in with a huge disadvantage and came out on top. I still talk to them, we have a GroupMe and talk to each other regularly – it’s a sisterhood, I definitely left with friends, they are all entrepreneurs and we create a support system for each other.
VA: Tell us more about the amazing things you’ve been up to!
NEB: I sent a letter to MSNBC’s Your Business, asking for a makeover on my business because I saw the show and knew I needed help. The program host, JJ Ramberg, decided to call me, and the crew came out to Detroit to do the makeover. They brought in some industry experts, like Scott Miller, who’s a beverage expert – I mean his resume is out of this world – he worked at Coca-Cola and with Michelle Obama on her healthy snacks initiative and so much more. At first, he said he wasn’t going to work with me, he thought I was more interested in fame, but when I sent him the tea and he actually drank it he said, “This is an easy fix, the packaging sucks.”
VA: Why did he think that?
NEB: I think he had the impression I was more interested in the media than my product. I’ve been doing this for 10 years, but in a way, I’m still starting out so I would accept many media inquiries and interviews, hoping that the press would lead to sales. I was getting national media placements but the sales weren’t there, and the team helped me figure out why. They said the product is invisible on the shelf, plus the kind of tea that it is, even the color, was hard to classify. There are so many beverages, so many teas, but what were the key differentiators of mine? I had a hard time articulating what it was in the beginning, but the makeover helped me put it one sentence – it’s Jamaican sweet tea. It wasn’t tropical – it doesn’t have ingredients like pineapple – it’s not exotic, it’s Jamaican sweet tea, that’s all it is, and no other bottled Jamaican sweet tea was sitting on the shelves. It gives us no competition, this is hand-steeped real tea, not tea-flavored syrup that other companies use. With this realization, the team helped us to categorize the product, get new packaging and obtain a contract with Sam’s Club (owned by Walmart). I got a deal within a week through this makeover, and with HMSHost, a leading airport concession management company, now making us a national brand as we are in 14 airports; every region in the country.
There’s a lot of opportunity out there and this experience equipped us to properly take advantage of these opportunities – it did a lot for us. In fact, that’s where the new box for Sam’s Club came from; they sell an exclusive new half gallon bottle. Since it’s a bulk store, you can’t just put plain brown boxes out on display, so we designed these for their specific consumers. That led us to an even wider reach with distribution, with U.S. Foods, one of the largest distributors in the country, and I landed an account with them and will be in their distribution centers across the country. My life is a blur right now, it’s exciting, and this is only the beginning – we are finally getting to the other side through this makeover. Staying focused and in our lane, we will get there very soon. This year is very promising for us.
VA: How has your facility or production process evolved over the years?
NEB: My process for my recipe is the exact same, but we are now more organized, everything was a guessing game at first, but we had our first FDA inspection and we passed with flying colors! Oh, and there’s a lot more paperwork now (laughing) and we are also bottling for other beverage companies.
VA: It started as a family affair and a labor of love, what does your staff look like now?
NEB: It’s still a labor of love, we have 21 people in total. During the summer, six high school students work in production and when they go back to school, we have four part-time employees in rotation. We have a 15-member demonstration team, so they go to places like Whole Foods, Sam’s Club, Kroger, airports and more, and pour samples for shoppers, which lead to direct sales. We operate five days a week, producing 5,000 bottles weekly and it continues to grow. Ultimately, I want the lights on 24 hours a day, with three production shifts each day, six days a week with a one-day shutdown for cleaning – I want to max this place out!
VA: Since the last time we spoke, the retail availability of Ellis Island tea has grown, tell us where it can be found around the country.
NEB: All the Krogers in Michigan; the Whole Foods in Michigan, Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin; Sam’s Club in Michigan, Ohio and Indiana, all Meijer locations in the country; Three Plum Markets in Michigan and one in Chicago; 14 national airports; And locally in Detroit at Avalon Bakery and some independent mom and pop places.
VA: You were named to the Forbes list of 30 under 30, what did that mean to you?
NEB: It’s not something I ever could’ve imagined happening, of course you hear about it from a celebrity standpoint, but it wasn’t even something on my bucket list, I cant even articulate what it meant to me, it was huge. I still don’t really believe it happened, I made the all-star alum list the following year, which gave me even more access, so we have a private app where we communicate, it’s like a whole society of support and we all relate to each other – I gained a lot of friends. Through this honor I was able to go to Israel twice, which was life changing – especially this time – I came back a different person, I gained a huge appreciation for the cultural history of the country and its people.
VA: What is the greatest thing you learned so far that has changed the way you do business or look at business?
NEB: One word I would use is patience. I’ve been doing this for 10 years and I gained an appreciation for the slow and steady path versus jumping at every opportunity. I stay in my lane, there are a lot of distractions, even opportunities can be a distraction. Starting out, I would sell to anyone who would buy. Now, we have a target market – millennials and people on the go – and convenience is what we offer.
VA: What do you want consumers to know about Ellis Island tea, why should they choose your tea?
NEB: It is the only bottled Jamaican sweet tea on the market. It’s not a tea-flavored drink, it’s hand steeped real herb tea. It’s fun, it’s real, it’s authentic, it’s hand crafted, small batch manufacturing. The most common feedback is that it’s so smooth and tastes like real tea, because it is real! So often labels say things like, “New formula same great taste.” Why is it a science formula instead of a recipe? To me, Jamaican sweet tea is like the TexMex equivalent to Jamaican sorrel.
VA: What are some creative things you can do with the tea? Food, drink concoctions, etc.
NEB: Our tea makes for delicious cocktails – we have recipe ideas on Pinterest. You can also use it to marinate food, freeze it to make slushies or popsicles, and even infuse it into frosting for cupcakes!
VA: If you could give advice for that up and coming Queen Boss, what would you say?
NEB: When times get tough, stay the course. Entrepreneurship is a spiritual journey that requires knowing beyond oneself.
VA: What’s next for Ellis Island Tea? Will you expand to other varieties or products?
NEB: Expansion is on the horizon and, yes, we are going to get into some more flavors. I want to make sure that I saturate the market with what I have first, but we definitely have some stuff cooking up!
For more information about Ellis Island Tea and locations to buy, check out their website. You can also keep up with company news on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.