Magazine article Black Enterprise

Spilling Tea on a Growing Beverage Biz: Nailah Ellis-Brown Took Ellis Island Tea from Car Trunk Sales to the Shelves of Whole Foods

Magazine article Black Enterprise

Spilling Tea on a Growing Beverage Biz: Nailah Ellis-Brown Took Ellis Island Tea from Car Trunk Sales to the Shelves of Whole Foods

Article excerpt

NEAR THE RUSSELL INDUSTRIAL CENTER--A 15-MINUTE ride from downtown Detroit--you can find the site that houses natural tea manufacturer Ellis Infinity Beverage Co. The modern 4,000-square-foot warehouse space contains a spiraling assembly line, a huge refrigerator to store beverages, and an array of delivery boxes. The 28-year-old founder and CEO of this bottling operation is Nailah Ellis-Brown.

The 6-year-old company, which produces Ellis Island Tropical Tea required a $150,000 investment, and, has reached a critical stage. "We are transitioning from purchase order production to continuous production," she says.

It's been a few years since Ellis-Brown ran the company from her parents' basement and sold her product from the trunk of her car. Now, the hibiscus tea is sold at regional Whole Foods Markets. It is also receiving orders from other such retailers. Moreover, her company has structured an arrangement with a national distributor and grown to three part-time workers--she expects to hire several more employees--as orders continue to flow. Sales have grown from $27,000 in 2014 to more than $60,000 in 2015 and with secured regional and national accounts, she projects revenues to reach $200,000 this year.

Ellis-Brown, who owns 100% of the company and characterizes her entrepreneurial journey as a "spiritual walk," launched the venture with little capital and not a clue about how to run a business. She did, however, hold the vision that the old family tea recipe from Jamaica could make quite a splash in the bottled beverage market.

Her original plan was to earn a business degree from Howard University and then make her fortune on Wall Street to seed a future enterprise. Overwhelmed by the enormous student debt she would incur, Ellis-Brown decided to drop out of college and return to her hometown of Detroit to start a business. "I am pro-education [and] plan on going back to get my degree but once I realized how student loans work and how much more you'd actually end up paying back and how much debt I would walk away with, I couldn't accept that," she says.

After dropping out of college and taking up residence in her mother's basement, she decided to take her family recipe, carry on the family legacy, and start a beverage company. "All I had to do was get the recipe from my father and buy some tea bags. It was a no brainer."

What separates Ellis Island from its competitors is that it produces the sweet tea using hibiscus, rose hips, and peppermint leaves, giving it a red color and a smoother, fruitier taste. To mass produce the beverage, Ellis-Brown contracted a bottler but could not find any companies willing to undergo the "labor intensive process of hand steeping our herbs so we had to get into a space and buy our own production equipment," she recalls. "We have control over all of our production. We do not play when it comes to quality."

That commitment was critical when she secured her "dream account"--Whole Foods. She found the process of loading up 50 bottles in a cooler, driving around Detroit, and selling them from a car trunk much too limiting. …

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