Ellis Island Tea recently rebranded. MSNBC visited founder Nailah Ellis-Brown and focused on Ellis Island Tea in its Small Business Makeover segment. Beverage expert Arthur Gallego reviewed the product and offered ideas to make the bottled tea more competitive in the marketplace. She has since had her label redesigned and plans to grow her distribution.
Nailah Ellis-Brown is the first person in her family to bottle and retail her great-grandfather’s hibiscus sweet tea recipe. Her brewing and bottling operation is based in her hometown of Detroit, Michigan. Her great-grandfather, Cyril Byron, immigrated to the United States from Jamaica via Ellis Island. He worked as the chief chef on the Yarmouth, a ship in the Black Star Line, on which he brewed and served his own recipe of hibiscus tea and herbs. He said his recipe was “meant to be sold—not told,” and that is exactly what his great-granddaughter, Nailah, is doing.
The original Ellis Island Tea label consisted of a white circle with the words “ellis island tropical tea” on it in thin lettering. Hibiscus flowers surrounded the circle. This label did not stand out among other teas on supermarket shelves. The new, bolder label incorporates more colors and includes more information about the tea to showcase its authenticity. It features the Yarmouth, beneath which are the words “Jamaican Sweet Tea.” Hibiscus flowers appear beneath the lettering. “Ellis Island Tea” stands out above the ship image with “Bottled Bliss” highlighted below it. The ingredients—hibiscus, rosehips, mint and honey—are prominent at at the label’s top.
“The rebranding got us set up to handle the opportunities that were on the table,” Ellis-Brown said. “Before the rebranding, the issue was that my bottle did not pop on the shelves against other brands. With the new packaging, it now pops.” In light of the new label and new classification as Jamaican sweet tea, Ellis-Brown believes the product will now do a better job of selling itself. It is the only bottled Jamaican sweet tea on the market.
Another issue that arose during the business makeover segment was the tea’s limited distribution. Gallego brought up the fact that Ellis Island Tea is currently sold in 300 stores, including Whole Foods Market and Kroger. However, he said a brand starts to become profitable after it reaches 15,000 to 20,000 stores. Ellis-Brown is addressing this disparity with plans to grow her distribution by expanding beyond independent brick-and-mortar stores. She plans to get Ellis Island Tea into more national distributors. One such national distributor she is working with is U.S. Foods, which has distribution centers in every state in the country. She plans to expand within the U.S. market first, but she is open to international opportunities as they present themselves because hibiscus tea is popular in Mexico, the Carribbean and Africa.
Ellis-Brown described the delicate balance of managing multiple distribution channels.
“Each distributor is a world of its own,” said Ellis-Brown. “Each is a world of opportunity on its own and if you focus too much on growing into more and more distribution channels before you master the channels that you already supply, then you lose them all because you underperform.” She added, “There is push and pull. There is push getting it on the shelves and there is pull getting consumers to go into the stores and buy it off of the shelves. You’ve got to find that equal balance.”
She stressed the importance of in-store demonstrations, which enable customers to sample the product. However, sampling can become a significant expense because in-store demo workers are paid $18 to $25 per hour. Nonetheless, it is an integral part of her current strategy for strengthening sales. She created a 15-person Midwest region demo team, believing this will boost sales to a level of performance that will satisfy distributors.
Gallego brought attention to the price of Ellis Island Tea, $3.99 per bottle, which is more than some other teas. “You get what you pay for,” said Ellis-Brown. “A lot of bottled teas are not real tea, they’re tea-flavored syrup and they’re technically tea-flavored drinks. My product is real tea and it’s a handcrafted tea, so all of our herbs are steeped by hand just like you would do at home. It’s a labor of love and we use real ingredients like honey and cane sugar. Our ingredient list is not a science project. Every single ingredient you can recognize and more than likely you have it in your pantry at home.”
She is appealing to an increasingly health-conscious consumer base.
“A hibiscus-flavored syrup is not going to cost as much as a hand-steeped hibiscus tea. You can taste the difference.”
Ellis Island Tea will soon be found in Sam’s Club throughout Michigan, Indiana and Ohio. HMS Host is also going to distribute the product to 14 airports across the U.S.
“The rebranding set us up to be able to handle the opportunities on the table,” said Ellis-Brown.
Since the product makeover, Ellis-Brown has received additional inquiries, some of which are on hold until after the Sam’s Club and HMS Host launches. “Slow and steady is my strategy,” said Ellis-Brown.
“I’m really excited about the new packaging and I feel like this is our season. I started selling tea out of my trunk 10 years ago and fast forward to today and I own a brand-new, state-of-the-art production operation. I’m just excited about what’s to come,” said Ellis-Brown.