Detroit entrepreneur makes history with one of the largest Black-owned beverage companies in the US

During her first year of college, Nailah Ellis-Brown knew that she wanted to be an entrepreneur and left school to start her business. She started selling tea the old-fashioned way, out of her own car trunk. 

Business boomed from there, and now Ellis-Brown is the founder of the Detroit-based Ellis Infinity, LLC, producer of Ellis Island Tea, a line of naturally sweetened hibiscus tea beverages inspired by the traditional Jamaican drink "sorrel.” 

The recipe came with her grandfather who came to the U.S. from Jamaica at Ellis Island, which, given her last name, was the perfect label for her product. Ellis-Brown recalls that the recipe was often shared at family events with her grandfather’s tea gracing every table. The hibiscus-flavored tea also features rosehips, honey, and mint. 

“[My grandfather] was a chef for Marcus Garvey Black Star Line,” says Ellis-Brown. “And his instruction for this recipe was for it to be sold, not told — which means put it on the market. It stayed in the family for years, and then it got passed down. And it would always be made for the family gatherings on my paternal side with every dinner. We have a lot of cooks in our family, and food is the way we love, it's the way we communicate.” 

Ellis Island Tea now boasts a full-scale, state-of-the-art production facility in Ellis-Brown’s hometown of Detroit, and ships orders to retailers and customers nationwide. She credits the city for much of her success. 

“I got my resilience straight from the city of Detroit,” she says, “There are no handouts. There aren't many resources, and you really have to figure things out on your own. And so I would say the city of Detroit definitely inspired the entrepreneur in me, and it gave me that skill set of resilience.” 

“I kept my business operation there because I wanted to continue to provide jobs for native Detroiters.” 

Ellis-Brown, who now lives in Atlanta, saw her online sales soar last year during Juneteenth and the height of the racial protests, a time when calls to support Black-owned businesses were amplified. 

In 2020, her 13-year-old product caught the attention of celebrities such as singer Beyoncé Knowles-Carter (who listed the tea on her Black-owned business site, The Black Parade Route) and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. Both in-store and online sales went through the roof — which helped keep her doors open, attract investors like actor Kevin Hart, and secure $1.85 million in capital funding.

She says a friend from Detroit works for Hart, and set up a meeting to sit down with the comedian. “I was beyond nervous because I felt like this was my one shot,” she says. “I had a 15-minute window and I introduced the product, and I let them taste Wet Shuga. And he went crazy.” 

Wet Shuga is Ellis-Brown’s newest product, sweetened with sugar cane. She got the idea to try the sweetener from the television show, Queen Sugar. She said that Hart told her, “I'm in. I'm in, congratulations, Kevin Hart is in. I want to make an investment. I really want to see you win.” 

She added that Hart said that he sees a lot of himself in her as far as her hustle. “And he really, really was into the story,” she said. “And so from that point, he started supporting me. And that was how we started working together.” 

In addition to Hart’s investment, Ellis-Brown attributes her “village and the level of support” she gets from friends, family, and investors to help her succeed in her passion. “My motivation has always been to provide opportunities for people who look like us and to play a role in improving the quality of life,” she says. 

She notes a big part of that is offering better products.

“I've always wanted my nutritional facts or the ingredient lists to be something you can actually read, and not look like a science project. My short, simple ingredient list is always something that I've strived to do. So it's a real product. And first and foremost, it tastes amazing. And I think that's originally what draws people in. And then when they see the person behind the brand, and my agenda and my passion, I think that's where the loyalty ends up kicking in.” 

Ellis-Brown insists on using real tea, rather than tea-flavored syrup. 

“What the people want is flavor and health at the same time,” she says. “And that simply did not exist within this ice tea category. You've got your unsweetened teas, which are healthy, but they don't taste good. They taste like bitter water. And then you've got your super sugary, overly loaded, sweetened with high fructose corn syrup teas. And those taste good, but they're not healthy at all.”

Ellis Island Tea also recently launched with Target, ensuring both Ellis Isle and Wet Shuga are available in every Target store in the country.

“That opportunity is one that I don't take for granted,” Ellis-Brown says. “It's very hard to come across where you get a national launch with Target. And so we're really excited about that partnership.” 

For the foreseeable future, Ellis-Brown will be concentrating on reaching more people. “We're in really exciting times. Because for the first time ever it's accessible anywhere in the country. We are really just focused on distribution and getting the product in people's hands.”
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Biba Adams is a regular contributor and project editor for Model D. Formally Model D's Editor at Large, she is a longtime journalist whose work is fueled by her passion for people and her native Detroit. Find her on all social channels @BibatheDiva.