Launching products, creating jobs in Detroit
Michigan State University’s Product Center has launched 455 new businesses and expansions, resulting in $328 million in sales and the creation of 1,273 jobs in Michigan in just over a decade.
Two Detroit-based companies, Ellis Infinity Beverage Co. and Hacienda Mexican Foods, credit the Product Center for giving them the boost they needed to stay competitive.
In 2009, Nailah Ellis-Brown, the founder and CEO of Ellis Infinity, was living in her mother’s basement and selling tea from the trunk of her car. She had a dream of running her own business selling her family’s secret-recipe tea, and she contacted the Product Center for help.
“Before my great grandfather died, he gave the recipe to my father and told him, ‘this recipe is to be sold and not told,’” said Ellis-Brown. “I promised to carry on our family legacy by bringing this tea to market.”
When asked how MSU helped Ellis-Brown, she answered, “What didn’t they do?” Together, they found a downtown location to setup her bottling facility and helped negotiate the lease, identified the information needed to make the tea’s nutritional labels, helped her secure a key relationship with Meijer supermarkets and more.
“Nailah is truly a jewel in the crown as far as someone who started selling something in a parking lot and is now in Meijer and Whole Foods and is really an inspiration for us all,” said Matt Birbeck, MSU Product Center senior project director.
The connection to the Michigan-based supermarket chain will allow Ellis-Brown to sell her secretly blended teas at more than 50 Meijer stores. The teas are already carried in 20 Whole Foods stores and other markets across five states, resulting in sales of $100,000 annually. With the Meijer boost, Ellis-Brown is hoping to increase sales and eventually create a tea “empire.”
In the past, the majority of Hacienda Mexican Foods' business was private-label work, producing products for another retailer. When that business evaporated, Hacienda floundered a bit. Various activities of the Product Center fostered the relationship between Hacienda Foods and Meijer.
Today, the company is running strong, has added a second shift and just signed a new agreement with Meijer for the entire chain of 222 stores. The new line, launched this summer, resulted in the company producing flour tortillas, corn tortillas and tortilla chips under the Hacienda Mexican Foods label, according to Tim Miller, Hacienda sales director.
MSU also helped Hacienda launch a new bottled water. Profits from water sales will support a new scholarship at MSU for Hispanic students. Lydia Guiterrez, Hacienda’s president, said it’s a subject that’s near and dear to her heart. This reflects her late husband’s dedication to community service, and she couldn’t think of a better partner than MSU to undertake this endeavor.
“If I were to sum up our relationship with MSU in one word, it would be ‘partnership,’” Guiterrez said. “They have been a great resource for us for so many things. They’re real people, who truly get behind you to help you be successful and accelerate your growth.”
The Product Center has helped a number of Detroit businesses, such as helping Achatz Handmade Pie Co. launch a new product, as well as counseled nearly 100 entrepreneurs from Detroit last year.
“We take the mystery out of doing business,” Birbeck said. “We help people connect the dots. If your passion is all about your product, we can help make those key connections with other businesses and find those opportunities to get your products on the shelves of stores.”
The Product Center will host its Making it in Michigan Conference on Nov. 10 at the Lansing Center.