Ellis Island Tea specializes in producing all natural ready to drink beverages in the company’s own state-of-the-art beverage production and co-packing facility located in Detroit.
Because taking a local brand national is no small task, we wanted to find out more about the founder and CEO, Nailah Ellis-Brown and her brand made from a 100 year old recipe.
What inspired you to create Ellis Island tea?
Ellis Island Tea was inspired by a recipe created more than 100 years ago by my Great-grandfather Cyril Byron, a Jamaican immigrant who came to America through Ellis Island.
Cyril was a master chef for Marcus Garvey’s Black Star Line, who went on to run Byron’s Catering, one of the largest catering companies in the Bronx in the early 1900’s.
Cyril always said his recipe was to be “Sold, not told.” That meant bring it to market. I had always wanted to be an entrepreneur so I took those words to heart when the family recipe was passed down to me.
It is a tea loved by generations of my family and now it’s the only Jamaican Sweet Tea in the country, and is sold nationally.
You are currently in multiple retail locations. Briefly explain how you got into the first one.
Yes, Ellis Island Tea is in almost 1,000 stores now, but when I began in business I was selling my tea from a cooler in the back of my car.
Even then I knew this beverage belonged in stores. One day I summoned my courage, walked into Avalon International Breads and asked how I could get on their shelves.
The owner asked me if I brewed the tea in Detroit. When I said ‘yes’, she agreed to give me a shot. The tea did well. About a year later I got into my first Whole Foods store. We took off from there.
How important is proper branding?
Ellis Island Tea has been on the market for 10 years now, but it wasn’t until last year that we truly found our niche and a look that ‘popped’ on the shelves. MSNBC Your Business helped us rebrand, bringing in Skidmore Studio to redesign our packaging.
They helped us define what Ellis Island Tea actually was – Jamaican Sweet Tea – giving us our own lane in the bottled tea category.
We’d been struggling to explain it simply to store buyers and consumers. The new look and positioning really appealed to buyers from Sam’s Club and from HMSHost (the airport concessions giant).
The beverage industry is very saturated. How do you differentiate yourself and stay competitive?
Ellis Island Tea is naturally differentiated. It is the only Jamaican Sweet Tea brewed and sold in America. Ellis Island Tea is 100% natural and hand-steeped with real herbs. Its beautiful red color and refreshing, smooth flavor sets it apart from any other tea on the market.
While we are in our own category of bottled iced tea, we are still a tea, which is the most sought after beverage in the world next to water.
Millenials, in particular, love iced tea. They are seeking innovative beverages that are healthy and offer unique flavors. Ellis Island Tea offers everything they are looking for, plus it is rich in antioxidants.
What is your product distribution status now and where do you see it in the next 5 years?
We are currently sold in almost 1,000 stores, but as of May 15th we will also be in every Sam’s Club in the country. We’re pretty excited about that! Every time we get national press, we have people around the country trying to find Ellis Island Tea.
We’re finally going to be where anyone can buy it from a store near them. In addition to store shelves, we are expanding in airports working with HMSHost. Ideally, in the next five years we will solidly be a national beverage brand.
What advice do you have for your younger entrepreneur self?
Stay the course. You will succeed. There are times in every entrepreneur’s life when we fear failure and question whether we should ever have gone into business for ourselves.
It can be a very difficult, lonely endeavor, but for me it is worth it. My beverage company is on the verge of major success. The trials and sacrifice will be well worth it.
Find out more about Ellis Island Tea on their website.
-Tony Oluwatoyin Lawson (IG@thebusyafrican)