Episode No 8 / Nailah Ellis

From selling tea from the trunk of her car to partnering with Hollywood’s Kevin Hart

July 15 / 2020 Article by Serena Maria Daniels, Photography by Ali Lapetina

Nailah Ellis

Ellis Island Tea

Nailah Ellis is on the cusp of creating a beverage empire.

Her brand, Ellis Island Tea, has become one of the most talked about success stories to come out of Detroit manufacturing in recent memory, with Hollywood elites raving over its herbaceous blend of hibiscus and pure cane sugar, a combination that spans several generations.

In fact, Ellis Island Tea is now the largest Black woman-owned beverage company in the United States, with product in Sam’s Club, Costco and airport concessioners nationwide, in addition to Whole Foods and Westborn Markets across Michigan.

 The business is growing so quickly that Ellis’s small production team can hardly keep up.

“We love that because it means cash is coming in and so we’re looking forward to having that problem,” Ellis said in an interview one cold February afternoon.

This week, Ellis, who started her company more than a decade ago by recreating her Jamaican great-grandfather’s recipe for hibiscus tea, announced a deal with one of those famous fans, actor and comedian, Kevin Hart. To lock in that investment, she recently traveled to Trinidad and Tobago to negotiate a deal with a major bottler that could help overhaul the company’s production.

“This is how you become an entrepreneur – one impossible thing after the next. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”Nailah Ellis

With that, Ellis Island Tea will be rolling out in Walmart this month and will soon debut in Target and CVS. With Hart’s backing, sleek new packaging, competitive pricing, and new e-commerce options, Ellis expects rapid growth.

Not only will the pivotal investment provide the capital needed to increase production, her partnership with someone with that kind of star power is likely to catapult the company from a beloved local brand to a major player in the beverage industry.

“We’re about to change the game for the entire beverage industry, and Kevin Hart is very excited about being part of that,” she said.

But long before Ellis caught the attention of Hart (not to mention a recent shoutout from Beyoncé, who listed Ellis Island Tea as a beloved Black-owned brand to look out for in honor of Juneteenth), she was a 20-year-old selling bottles of her recipe out of the trunk of her car.

Ellis said that her path to entrepreneurship started as a kid while attending the Nataki Talibah Schoolhouse of Detroit, an alternative school founded in 1978 by Carmen N’Namdi. Now closed, the school had a holistic approach to education that gave Ellis a global perspective on Black and African culture. It was that foundation that she credits for giving her the confidence she needed to pursue business in the first place. There, a little mop closet was fashioned into a student store, where she worked behind the counter selling bags of Better Made potato chips and juice boxes to her classmates who bought the snacks with play money issued by the school for good behavior.

Ellis moved around to different schools during her youth, but she carried with her that student store experience, later going on to sell Flamin’ Hot Cheetos and Capri Suns in the hallways out of a duffle bag, often landing her in trouble with the principal.

At 14, Ellis tried to get a part-time job at McDonald’s. But her mom, not wanting her to get locked into a low-wage job, protested.

“I already had a taste of doing my own thing and collecting cash without having a boss,” said Ellis.

If working a regular job was out of the question, it was up to Ellis to decide which path to follow. She experimented with different ideas. She had attended Howard University briefly to study business. She also considered becoming a personal trainer, babysitter, or working in the adult foster care system. Nothing felt right.

One thing, though, that she had all along were memories of her great-grandfather’s recipe for hibiscus tea. It was already a favorite at family reunions. So for Ellis, it was a logical turning point.

The first step was getting the recipe, which involved flying to New York where her father lived and asking him for it. He was happy to comply, but there was a catch.

“It’s never been written down,” said Ellis. The tea is based on a recipe created by her great-grandfather Cyril Byron, a Jamaican immigrant, chef and entrepreneur who told his family the recipe was to be “Sold, not told.”  “So when my father gave it to me, he gave it to me like this: ‘Couple lemons, couple limes, and some tea bags.’ I’m not going to say the brand of the teabag. So tea bags, and then you have the recipe. 

“I was so excited, I couldn’t wait to get home. I was like okay, say less. I got it,” she said.

But the first batch tasted nothing like her great-grandpa’s. It was horrible. 

“The tea is [supposed to be] red,” she said, pointing to a bottle of the contemporary product. “The first batch came out brown, like regular iced tea, and it did not taste good at all.”

It took a year of daily experimentation in her mother’s kitchen to get the recipe right. When she was confident in her formula, she turned back to her mentor from Nataki, who helped Ellis come up with the brand’s name, a play on her last name and the tea’s Carribean island flavors. Later she learned that her great-grandfather had in fact come to the U.S. through Ellis Island.

When the day arrived that Ellis was ready to test the recipe with actual customers, she started by loading an old cooler with bottles, driving around town and stopping where people gathered. Often, that meant the parking lot of Home Depot on Seven Mile and Meyers Roads, where she’d open her hatchback and sell to thirsty contractors who were picking up materials.

You can’t get much more Detroit than starting a business from the trunk of your car. That experience in the parkings lots only drove her to push harder when others might give up.

“I think it was about a year or two and I got really comfortable,” said Ellis. “If I get too comfortable, then it’s like, okay, I gotta evolve. I’m doing something wrong here. I looked myself in the mirror and said, ‘Never again will you sell a bottle of tea from a cooler in the trunk of your car.’”

That’s when Ellis took the leap and approached Whole Foods Market, which has a history of stocking its stores with local products from small-scale makers, and asked the buyer to give Ellis Island Tea a shot. Her proposal was not immediately accepted, however, and she had to spend the next several months researching how to comply with the grocery chain’s long list of criteria before her tea would be considered for stocking. She continued on with Westborn Market and Meijer stores, which began stocking the brand throughout Michigan. In 2014, she opened her plant, situated in a warehouse across from the Russell Industrial Center, allowing her to start hiring Detroiters to manufacture the product.

In 2016, Ellis made Forbes’ coveted “30 under 30” list for manufacturing and industry, and appeared as an all-star alum in the business publication. Those nods of approval were followed by an appearance on MSNBC’s “Your Business Makeover” show, winning BET’s Queen Boss business competition and being featured in The Wall Street Journal, The Financial Times, The Root 100 and Black Enterprise. The rebranding campaign leant itself to a lucrative deal with Sam’s Club, introducing thousands more to her family’s beloved recipe across the country.

“There were a lot of people pulling for Nailah. Her name just kept coming up and coming across my radar. So, I figured there had to be something to it.”—Kevin Hart

Then last year, Ellis competed in the Quicken Loans Detroit Demo Day at The Fillmore Detroit. She won a $300,000 investment and scored a powerful endorsement from the company’s founder and chairman, Dan Gilbert.

It was that vote of confidence that caught the attention of Hart, after a mutual connection she shared with the comedian helped to pique his interest.

“He was shooting a movie in Montreal over the summer and word got to him. He said, ‘Okay, everybody keeps telling me about this tea girl. Send me some samples.’ I sent them the samples, didn’t hear anything, called everybody. And then, radio silence. I put in a call saying, ‘Look guys, I have Dan Gilbert over here who has invested and put money behind the company. If he believes in me, come on, Kevin, give me 15 minutes of your time. Come on, it’ll be worth it!’” Ellis said.

For Hart, who also spent years working small clubs and honing his craft before becoming a bankable star who commands $10 million-plus a movie, Ellis’s story resonated with him.

“There were a lot of people pulling for Nailah,” said Hart, who was impressed by the Detroiter’s determination and hustle. “Her name just kept coming up and coming across my radar. So, I figured there had to be something to it.”

Ellis got her 15 minutes (and no more) to pitch the comedian. And the rest, as they say, is history.

The Next Level

We first met Ellis, Rob Brown and their small daughter, Aaliyah in the company’s plant on a frigid February afternoon. A four-person crew was busy brewing, bottling, and packaging the tea for shipments.

She had just returned from a flash of business meetings the week earlier — with Walmart in Arkansas, Sam’s Club in California, and a beverage show in Las Vegas. Just before Christmas, she traveled to Atlanta to meet with Hart to begin negotiating a deal that would elevate the already growing business to the next level and change the game in the beverage industry.

In February, Hart agreed to invest in Ellis’s business. He saw the potential of a company that was steeped in history but had a focus on the future.

Hart is a big believer in building for the future. The soon-to-be father of four has said that “You’re supposed to set up for the next generation…if you’re not doing that, you’re not doing your part.”

“We all need opportunity. I’ve been given mine and now I’m paying it forward and providing that for others.”Nailah Ellis

Many entrepreneurs will tell you about the series of seemingly little moments that led to their success. And for Ellis, it’s no different. It really was a culmination of events that led her to the right moments at just the right time. Had she not attended Nataki, she never would have worked in the little store. Had her mother not nudged her to steer clear of working a dead-end job, she never would have realized that entrepreneurship was for her.

And without those humbling first years, Ellis perhaps would not have had the foundation she needed to keep persisting for that pivotal moment with the famous actor and comedian. She is now on her way to change the game in the multi-billion dollar beverage industry. Her terms. Her drive. Her moment.

“We all need opportunity,” Ellis said. “I’ve been given mine and now I’m paying it forward and providing that for others.”

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