We gotta get some of this tea!
Meet Nailah Ellis-Brown, founder of the largest Black woman-owned beverage company in the country, The Grio reports.
Ellis-Brown is the founder of Ellis Infinity, LLC, the maker of Ellis Island Tea, a line of naturally sweetened tea beverages inspired by sorrel, a traditional Jamaican drink. The Detroit native got the recipe from her great-grandfather, who migrated to America from Jamaica at Ellis Island. Given the entry point for her grandfather and the family’s last name, she thought it was a great name for her product.
At every family event, her grandfather’s brew would be the highlight of the table, infused with hibiscus, rosehips, honey and mint. When Ellis-Brown got to college, she already knew she wanted to become an entrepreneur, eventually dropping out to sell her tea recipe, starting out of the back of her trunk.
“What started with small batches and selling bottles from the back of a car quickly became a much bigger business,” a statement on the website reads.
What makes Ellis Island Tea so different is the quality of the product, Ellis-Brown opting for real tea instead of a tea-flavored syrup. She credits the product's quality with the commitment of returning customers and the success of the company thus far.
“I’ve always wanted my nutritional facts or the ingredient lists to be something you can actually read, and not look like a science project. My short, simple ingredient list is always something that I’ve strived to do. So it’s a real product. And first and foremost, it tastes amazing. And I think that’s originally what draws people in. And then when they see the person behind the brand, and my agenda and my passion, I think that's where the loyalty ends up kicking in,” she said.
Eventually Ellis-Brown got a shot on Centric TV’s Queen Boss in 2017, expanding her operations and scaling the business, opening a state-of-the-art facility in Detroit, producing and shipping her tea to retailers nationwide. She moved to Atlanta, keeping her business headquarters in Detroit and in 2020, her product caught the attention of celebrities like Beyonce, who profiled the tea on her site and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. As a result of the publicity and the calls around the country for more support for Black businesses in the midst of a racial reckoning, Ellis-Brown’s sales soared and she was able to keep the doors open, secure $1.85 million in funding and attract new investors like Kevin Hart.
A mutual friend connected Ellis-Brown and Hart, the entrepreneur offering him a preview of her newest product.
“I was beyond nervous because I felt like this was my one shot and I had a 15-minute window, and I introduced the product, and I let them taste Wet Shuga. And he went crazy,” Ellis-Brown recalled.
The drink is sweetened with sugar cane, an idea Ellis-Brown says she got from Ava DuVernay’s hit show Queen Sugar. Upon tasting it, Hart immediately got on board and invested in the product.
“He really, really was into the story. And so from that point, he started supporting me. And that was how we started working together,” said Ellis-Brown.
She credits her native Detroit and her village of friends and family with getting her to where she is now.
“I got my resilience straight from the city of Detroit. There are no handouts. There aren’t many resources, and you really have to figure things out on your own. And so I would say the city of Detroit definitely inspired the entrepreneur in me, and it gave me that skill set of resilience... I kept my business operation there because I wanted to continue to provide jobs for native Detroiters,” said Ellis-Brown.
Her primary motivation, since the day she began this journey 13 years ago, has always been to help others.
“My motivation has always been to provide opportunities for people who look like us and to play a role in improving the quality of life [for Black communities],” she said.
Currently-Ellis Brown is looking to ramp up distribution and get the tea in as many people’s hands as possible. Ellis Island Tea and Wet Shuga are currently available in Target nationwide. She also plans to continue making the tea as healthy as possible.
“Every time we launch, we strive to get even healthier by the next launch. So that’s always on the forefront on the innovation side for us…[The opportunity with Target] is one that I don’t take for granted. It’s very hard to come across where you get a national launch with Target. And so we’re really excited about that partnership...for the first time ever, it’s accessible anywhere in the country. We are really just focused on distribution and getting the product in people’s hands,” said Ellis-Brown.
Purchase your batch of Ellis Island Tea here or at a Target store near you.
Photo Courtesy of Peter Larson