Detroit native brews up a hit with Ellis Island Jamaican sweet tea

Began selling from her car

DETROIT – With every order Nailah Ellis-Brown fills at her bottling plant on Clay Street in Detroit, she is also filling her dreams.

Ellis-Brown’s story is nothing short of incredible.

Born and raised in Detroit, she went from finding herself in a car, writing down her great grandfather’s recipe for hibiscus sweet tea, to scrambling now to fill the orders coming in to re-stock the shelves of Sam’s Clubs in Michigan, Ohio and Indiana.

“I make the only bottled Jamaican sweet tea in the country, and I am the only minority woman owning and operating a beverage facility in the country.” Says Ellis-Brown.

In the beginning, Ellis-Brown had to get the the brew just right. The Jamaican sweet tea was so good, she drove around the city of Detroit with bottles of it on ice, stopping to sell it right out of the trunk of her car.

That led to her walking into a city gas station, asking for shelf space. The owner said yes, and now she was selling tea in a shop.

That led to some tough meetings with Whole Foods executives. Her tea tasted great, but her bottle had her business card taped to it. That was it, no label.

She had to quickly learn how to label her brew with nutritional values, bar tracking codes and more.

She and her tea were becoming a hit.

Whole Foods then called her to ask if they could stock her Ellis Island Tea on their shelves at their Detroit store. It is now the best-selling local beverage at that location.

Next came a mention in Forbes “30 under 30” manufacturing stars and then a call from MSNBC.

A show wanted to give Nailah’s business a make-over to help her grow.

Walmart then flew Ellis-Brown in for a meeting.

“Once they took that first sip, it was hook, line and sinker," she said.

Walmart signed Ellis Island Tea to an exclusive deal, stocking half gallon bottles of the tea at their Midwest stores.

The key question now is, can she keep up with production?  

“I’ve already hired 15 people and I need more. I want to keep everything right here in Detroit. I want to hire Detroiters, this is hard work, and we are going to keep it all going right here,” Ellis-Brown says.

Now, Walmart and MSNBC are partnering to find more small businesses just like Ellis Island Tea, and Ellis-Brown wants to send them as many Detroit small business people as she possibly can.

It’s remarkable that Ellis-Brown’s great grandfather immigrated here from Jamaica through Ellis Island with a tea recipe that he famously said was “to be told and not sold.”  Ellis-Brown’s father told her the recipe and right here in Detroit, she is making the tea and selling it like crazy.

For more information about the tea, click here

Sign up for ClickOnDetroit breaking news alerts and email newsletters

About the Author: