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Ellis Island Tea

Detroit, MI

Ellis Infinity Beverage Co figures out the recipe for finding the first home away from home

Nailah Ellis-Brown's entrepreneurial story is starting to become the stuff of local legend.

The Detroiter left college to start her own company, Ellis Infinity Beverage Co. She utilized a long-held family recipe to make Ellis Island Tea, which can now be found on store shelves across Michigan. She made the first bottles from her parent’s home and sold them out of her trunk seven years ago.

Now she has a relationship with Whole Foods to sell bottles of Ellis Island Tea across the grocery store chain’s 22 Midwest stores. It adds up to sales of about 150 cases a month and 300 percent growth over the last year.

But to get to that point she had to find a place to bottle her beverages somewhere else than in her parent's basement. She tried outsourcing the work but the contractors either wanted to change the recipe or couldn't get important details right, such as correct labeling.

"I'm not going to sacrifice quality for quantity," Ellis-Brown says. "I had to do things myself."

So Ellis-Brown found a commercial kitchen in Hart, just north of Muskegon, that serves as sort of a co-working space for food entrepreneurs. She drove fours one way to make her teas, and soon realized this wasn't an arrangement that would lead to rapid expansion.

The answer turned out to be finding a production space in Detroit. She stumbled across one while driving next to the Russell Industrial Center near the border between Detroit and Hamtramck. She was cruising and dialing numbers on the sides of buildings hoping to get an answer.

"I just drove over there," Ellis-Brown says. "I knew it was an industrial area and I was looking for a place to purchase."

But she wasn't getting any responses. At least at first. Well into her search she found a small industrial building and the owner picked up. Not only did he liked her idea but he agreed to help her get the space ready to begin production of Ellis Island Tea.

"It made me comfortable because he had experience," Ellis-Brown says. "We passed code on our first inspection, which is never heard of."

This is not the easy way of doing things. Ellis-Brown and her team of five people work long hours to make sure the product is up to snuff. It also required her to learn a whole new skill set in something else than making the perfect pitcher of sweet tea.

"Make sure the production side of things is something you have a passion for," Ellis-Brown says. "It's not easy. It's one of the hardest things I have ever done."

Welcome to the Year of the Gazelle, an exploration of the fastest-growing startups in southeast Michigan by the Startup team and the New Economy Initiative for Southeast Michigan (NEI). Not only will we identify the local gazelle companies that are perfecting innovative new products, creating jobs, and generating lots of revenue, we will give you a full accounting of each one. The stories behind the entrepreneurs that build these businesses. The investors that back them. The resources they leverage. How they have all worked together to build Metro Detroit's new economy, and how they plan to do it in the future. In return we will only ask you to do one thing: keep up.

- Written by Jon Zemke

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