The inspiring story of the only Black female beverage maker in U.S. with her own factory

Ama Nunoo September 02, 2020
Nailah Ellis-Brown, founder of Ellis Island Tea. Photo: Model D Media

Nailah Ellis-Brown had entrepreneurial tendencies as a child and now she is the only African-American female beverage maker in the United States with her own manufacturing plant that possibly sells the only Jamaican Sweet Tea on the market in America.

For career day in school, children play dress-up with the careers they aspire to be, and sometimes these children do grow to work in those fields. At other times, their career path takes a whole 360 turn.

Ellis-Brown characterizes her entrepreneurial journey as a “spiritual walk” because she began her business with just a little capital and no clue as to how to run a business. As a child, she had a knack for selling. She would pack her bag with candies and other sweets before going to school and always returned home with money at hand.

“I always sold everything, candy, chips, juice,” she said. “I knew then that entrepreneurship was for me.”

The Howard University dropout had a dream of working on Wall Street to then finance her future business, but things took another turn for the better. She returned to her hometown, Detroit, and started a tea business from her mother’s basement.

She admits she is pro-education, however, the fear of accruing student debt and working after school to offset them drove her to pursue her dream of owning her own company.

At age 20, amid the 2008 recession, she defied all odds to start her handcrafted bottled Jamaican Sweet Tea – known as Ellis Island Tea. Every night, Ellis-Brown brewed the tea in her mother’s kitchen and sold the 32 oz. bottles for eight dollars each from a cooler in the trunk of her car the next day. She always came home with every bottle sold and enough funds to brew more tea for the next day.

“Growing up in Detroit, I knew nothing was going to be handed to me. I expected doors to be closed and knew I would need to work hard and never take ‘no’ for an answer,” she said. “I’ve heard ‘no’ but I haven’t let that stand in my way. There is always a way forward.”

Her desire to see her family tea recipe splashed across shelves all over the country was her driving force. The recipe for her Jamaican Sweet Tea was handed down from her great-grandfather.

“People would see me and say ‘Hey aren’t you that Lemonade Girl?’ and I’d say ‘No, I make tea,” Ellis-Brown said.

“There is a lot of history in the recipe for this tea. It was handed down to me from my Great-Grandfather Cyril Byron, who was a Jamaican immigrant. He knew his recipe had value. He passed it down through the generations with the caveat that it was to be ‘sold, not told’ – meaning take the tea to market. I am honoring his legacy every single day with every bottle of Ellis Island Tea I brew and sell.”

“I asked myself if there’s no such thing as money what would I do for free? Making our family beverage was it.”

Cyril Brown, Ellis-Brown’s great-grandfather, born in Boston Bay, Jamaica, migrated to the U.S. over 100 years ago through Ellis Bay. He had a legacy of his own as he won awards for his baking while a chef in Manhattan hotels. He also worked as a chef for Marcus Garvey’s Black Star Line and later ran a successful catering business in the Bronx – Bryon catering till he passed on.

The greatest legacy for his generations to come would be the Jamaican sweet tea recipe which has been shared by word of mouth from one generation to the other. It basically contains herbs, mint, rosehips, and hibiscus.

She perfected her great-grandfather’s recipe by experimenting with other ingredients and brewing them for mass production. So, for every day that year, she brewed the tea until she knew it was ready to hit the market.

“I had to become a chemical engineer and create my own recipe,” she said.

The former Forbes “30 Under 30” pitched her tea to a local Whole Foods Market because it was her desire to see her products go big. She was turned away several times but she was a very persistent person to the point where the buyer said, ‘You’re not going to go away, are you?’

Ellis Island Tea is sold in more than 500 stores — including Whole Foods, Meijer, and Kroger — in high-traffic airports nationwide, in niche markets, and online. It will soon make its debut at CVS® and Target stores.

Ellis-Brown made one of her biggest deals with Sam’s Club. Her tea was sold across Sam’s Club in Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio then it moved to almost 600 Sam’s Club locations across the nation.

As the only African-American female beverage maker in the United States with her own manufacturing plant, creating jobs for fellow Detroiters has been one of her goals since she opened her plant in 2014.

The natural tea manufacturing company, Ellis Infinity Beverage Co., also provides services for other small beverage companies that are unable to meet the minimum batch requirements of larger production outlets.

Ellis-Brown’s tea is “a one in a million tea” and her unique journey and success have caught the attention of actor/comedian Kevin Hart who has come on board as an investor in the company.

Last month, the handcrafted tea maker posted on the company’s Facebook page.

“You cannot imagine how hard it was to contain this news! Well, the cat is out of the bag! Ellis Island Tea has landed investment from and is now officially partnered with Kevin Hart!

“Thank you for your belief in us, Kev! We are overfilled with excitement for what’s to come from this relationship!…Now I need y’all to go buy some tea because I gotta pay him back.”

Now Ellis Island Tea has a sleek new packaging, competitive pricing, and plans of expansion into e-commerce options since Hart came on board.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: September 3, 2020


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