Nailah Spills the Tea on Landing in the Beverage Business  

Photo courtesy of Ellis Isle Facebook page

 

Her Jamaican, immigrant great grandfather paved the way for her over 100 years ago, and the tenacious businesswoman, Nailah Ellis, is keeping things moving at her more than decade-old tea company.

Ellis Island Tea “has been on the scene since 2008” according to the well-known company, and Ellis spoke in mid-June to The Michigan Chronicle’s Digital Anchor Andre Ash at Studio 1452 about her booming company, how comedian Kevin Hart got in the mix and what’s the real tea behind her success.

“She is doing the thing — I love this Detroit story, about her journey, and where it is taking her,” Ash said of Ellis. “I was reading somewhere she described herself as the largest Black female beverage manufacturer in the United States … it is a big deal.”

“That is correct,” Ellis said, adding that establishing her company is still “somewhat unreal.”

“I still have my moments where I don’t believe it’s happening,” she said. “[It is a] very exciting time.”

Ash said that starting the business in 2008 was a “journey” in itself, and asked Ellis to discuss everything from her humble beginnings to meeting comedic powerhouse Hart.

“My great grandfather … came to America through Ellis Island in the early 1900s and he was a chef from Marcus Garvey’s Black Star Line (a shipping line incorporated by Marcus Garvey),” she said, adding that he would make a tea recipe aboard the ships. “The last thing he said was, ‘This recipe was to be sold and not told,’ which means to put it on the market.”

Ellis said that it “feels really good” to be able to carry on the family legacy.

“I literally started by selling tea from a cooler out of the trunk of my car,” she added. “I would brew tea every night and wake up in the morning and load up my cooler; put some ice on it and drive around the city of Detroit. Wherever I would see people I would sell it. I made most of my money in a Home Depot parking lot on Seven Mile and Meyers.”

The tea company sells the flavorful drink using real, natural hibiscus, rosehips, honey and mint, according to its website, https://www.ellisislandtea.com, “Just like Pop Ellis would.”

The three tea flavors include Ellis Isle Original, unsweet, and Wet Shuga (the O.G.).

When Ellis’s great grandfather revealed the tea recipe to her, she turned a family favorite into a marketable company that has grown in Detroit and across the country.

Ellis Isle now operates a full-scale, state-of-the-art production facility and ships orders to retailers and customers nationwide, according to her company website. She has also received a few industry honors and entrepreneurial awards during her journey.

Her journey also includes connecting with Hart, who she said was someone whose “hustle” she admired.

“That man works harder than anyone I know – outside of myself,” she said, adding that she wanted to get in front of him and tell him her story because she thought it would resonate, and it did.

“I got my elevator pitch — my 15-minute shot,” she said of speaking with Hart. “I told my story … it was an opportunity. … He tried my product, loved it … he has been nothing short of supportive during this journey.”

“How did you get a chance to get in front of him?” Ash asked Ellis.

“I’ve been one to never take ‘no’ for an answer,” she said, adding that she went to decision-makers and she was determined to get in front of him.

She added that Hart’s influence and connection with her company have helped her open doors.

“It makes it a lot easier to get into doors I would not have necessarily been able to get into,” she said, adding that her product also speaks for itself. “It feels good; it tastes good. It is healthy all around.”

Ellis also said that her business has been impacted by the pandemic because though she has been “very lucky” to maintain her staff, there have still been challenges with onboarding.

“Entrepreneurship is no easy task and it’s got to be passion. It’s got to be like all of my decisions I try to make out of love,” she said.

Her teas are available at Target and Amazon.

 

 

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