Nailah Ellis always wanted to be an entrepreneur. She had the ambition, the work ethic and the energy. However, she was missing the most important component – the product! Around the house and at family events, her dad would make tea and everyone would go crazy talking about how good the tea tasted. Nailah knew at that moment that tea would be the product that she would sell. Nailah’s father told her that the recipe was passed down from her great grandfather Cyril Byron, a Jamaican immigrant who came to America in the early 1900s via Ellis Island. She later discovered that he was the master chef for the Black Star Line which Marcus Garvey started. After working for this historic fleet, Cyril worked for Manhattan Hotels and many more ocean liners before he opened and founded Byron Caterers in 1940 based in the Morrisania Area of Bronx, NY, on the corner of Stebbins Avenue and 165th Street. Byron Caterers became one of the largest black family owned catering businesses in the area until it closed in 1960. All of this history and the family recipe inspired Nailah to create “Ellis Island Tropical Tea”.
Nailah was gracious enough to take out some time to talk about being a business owner in Detroit as it experiences revitalization, her faith and how it guides her decision-making process and making her family proud through her business efforts.
Your entrepreneurial spirit goes back to your great grandfather. How important has your family been in this process of making this product?
My family has played a huge role in this process. With this recipe going back so far into my bloodline, it is simply my obligation to keep the passion for this product alive. This also gives our family an opportunity to grow closer together because no matter what happens or what point we all may be at in our lives, we share a connection through Ellis Island Tea.
The trial and error process took a year. Talk about the patience that has to come along with creating the perfect product.
The trial and error process was a strenuous one but the Bible has taught me that tribulation helps develop patience. So, putting the pieces together for that perfect product will force you to have the patience that it requires because it takes a precise and steady mind to develop.
As a city, Detroit is desperate for a turn around. You are looking to build a state of the art commercial kitchen is in Detroit. How do you feel about the city’s progress and where is the morale level for businesses determined to stay in the city?
The city is definitely ready for a change and it seems like things are gearing up and aligning themselves for that change to take place. Right now is the perfect time for the fresh, new businesses to spring up in the city because many of the old businesses are shutting down. Also, you have popular chains (i.e. Whole Foods, Meijer, etc.) bringing their vision to Detroit because they believe in the potential that Detroit has to reach a level of prominence again. So, the buzz around the city is definitely at a high level to the point where outsiders are starting to take notice and jumping on the opportunity.
It’s one thing to make a good product. But you’ve managed to get your product into Whole Foods. I run into a lot of people who desire to get their products in stores at this level. Give us a basic run down of the process and requirements to get into Whole Foods.
Whole Foods prides themselves on saying that all of the products sold in their stores are 100% natural with no preservatives. So, that’s the number one requirement. They have a huge list of ingredients that are banned from being in their products. With that, I had to change my recipe to make sure that it met the criteria. While it was a strenuous process, it was definitely worth it because now, I can proudly say that Ellis Island Tea is 100% natural with no preservatives.
You’re operating in the Southeastern Michigan area. Are their plans for expansion? If so, what’s your timetable for expansion?
I definitely plan on expanding and growing my company into a national brand. By the end of 2014, I will be distributing in at least three states.
When people experience the business growth that you have, it’s no longer just about you. Even if you wanted to slow down or quit, it’s not that easy. Has there been times where the pressure was overwhelming? How did you overcome the challenges of demands and pressure?
Absolutely! There are several times where I would feel overwhelmed and want to throw in the towel. But, the motto I live by is “Work like everything depends on you and pray like everything depends on God.” So, if it wasn’t for my faith, I wouldn’t have made any of the progress that I have because in those times where I wanted to fold, God helped carry me to the next level.
Google came to Detroit and gave out free websites for a year. You were involved in that event. How beneficial was that assistance in your process? And how important has your web presence been since that point?
I was able to gain a lot of knowledge on having and maintaining a web presence. It inspired me to reach higher and reach out to people across the globe. It gives everyone access and the ability to gain a better insight of what Ellis Island Tea is all about. Because of that, I have seen online orders increase, people reaching out to inspire, and really make themselves apart of my brand. The website has been newly revamped as well! So, that is also something to be excited about.
Once the process of manufacturing one product is mastered, it’s easier to duplicate that process with another product. Have you thought about creating any other businesses?
Most definitely! Short term, I’m looking to add more flavors to the Ellis Island brand. When looking towards the future, I have some ideas developing. Everyone just has to make sure that they stay tuned to see what blossoms from that. 🙂
Who are some of the instrumental people and unsung heroes in the process of building this brand?
Well, first and foremost, God. He has blessed me in ways unimaginable and opened up doors that I didn’t have the capability to open on my own. Next, my business partner, who likes to stay behind the scenes. He has been an cornerstone for this business and has given everything in his ability to see Ellis Island Tea succeed. Also, I MUST give credit to my mentors and fellow business owners like Ann Perrault of Avalon Bakery, Lisa and Wei Bee of the Sweetwater brand, Stefanie Garcia of Whole Foods, and a few others. Other instrumental people include Nikki and Andrena of Nikki’s Ginger Tea, Rick McQueen of Granddad’s Sweet Tea, and several others who have contributed along the way. Lastly, but certainly not least, my beautiful family who has given me the inspiration, motivation, and support to keep pressing forward.
“The recipe is to be sold, not to be told”. When you think about your great grandfather’s words today, what comes to mind?
Those words make me proud to be apart of such a rich heritage. It lets me know that I am doing the right thing in carrying the torch for our family’s legacy. Honestly, it gives me chills to see my great-grandfather’s vision coming to life through me.