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Just Add Honey: This Woman Has Built A Poppin' Loose Leaf Tea Empire In Atlanta

Serving the essence of femininity in every cup, Brandi Shelton is changing the tea game.

BOSS UP

Press play, yall. We're going to vibe during this feature today.

You wouldn't believe me if I told you how fascinating and essential honey can be to the general circle of life. Of course we all know that it's immortal and massed-produced by bees. But did you also know that honey is the only food that includes all substances necessary to sustain life?

That's right ladies: honey includes enzymes, vitamins, minerals, and water—each of which means it contains advantages of therapeutic, medicinal, nutritional, and cosmetic value.

*Updates self-care kit*

In setting the tone for this feature, I knew how necessary it was for me to know and understand my own personal associations with honey. Thoughts came pouring in of my own self-comparisons to a black woman's universal ooze of femininity. I thought of one of Erykah Badu's coldest songs, this amazing book I once read called Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur, and of course, some of my favorite green and ginger teas.

But even in my intense research and memory connections, it became very apparent that no one understood the intricate craft and chemistry of honey and any of our favorite teas quite like Brandi Shelton, owner of Just Add Honey Tea Company in Atlanta, GA.

You see, in essence, Just Add Honey is a loose leaf tea company that creates thoughtful blends that tea lovers and loose leaf tea novices alike can enjoy.

But in reality, they are so much more.

Just Add Honey uses tea leaves, herbs, botanicals, and fruits and spices to make full flavors with all-natural and recognizable ingredients in every cup sold. Nothing is changed or altered, as their only mission is to bring thoughtfully blended teas to your taste buds.

And to give you an example of the small, personalized details that go into their brand, Brandi's husband, Jermail, backs her by saying, "She had a blend called '1st Date,' which was a chocolate-based tea reminiscent of our first date at an ice cream shop."

Just Add Honey also sells hand-crafted pastries, hosts tea blending classes and tastings, and most interestingly, every single blend can be traced back to family-owned farms—being that their niche mission is to educate every customer on exactly where their tea comes from.

And if this all didn't impress you enough, Brandi also manages her own commercial kitchen, which focuses on distribution and online business, including monthly subscription boxes.

In my usual getting-to-know-my-subject fashion, I assess Brandi's entrepreneurial archetype and I'm immediately enamored by her brilliant balance of boss, present family woman, and herbal activist. I take note and observe as we begin to discuss her journey to becoming a tea giant.

"Each of my [previous] careers were stepping stones to where I am today," she starts.

"I began undergrad in Biomedical Engineering [and] I later worked as a branch manager for the second largest bank for four years. Then I went back to school for Fashion Design and Marketing and worked in the film/print industry for 15 years. Now I own one of Atlanta's best tea shops, and everything—and nothing—prepared me for where I am today."

I instantly relate to her path of entrepreneurship through varying levels of Corporate America, to a self-made business woman. "[When we began] we didn't fit 'the loose leaf tea' narrative. I remember 20 years ago, enjoying tea in other countries and not feeling welcomed but couldn't put my finger on why."

Soon thereafter, Brandi realized that 'why' was because she didn't fit the high tea profile that so many of her peers possessed. "I was tolerated, not welcomed," she says reluctantly.

Now, we all know the tumultuous global history of tea (and chile, if you don't, go do your research) but it has now evolved into a product enjoyed and consumed by many, regardless of location. Yet, similar to most industries, even tea comes with a protective society of craftsmen and veterans.

And with Brandi's newfound trade discovery, she was forced to go back to the drawing board and take the time to study and perfect her craft through international trips to tea farms and immersing herself in her physically present tea-based research.

Thirteen years later, she began to take on tea. Her way.

"I decided I would create what I wanted. [At that time] 'inclusion' and 'black girl magic' weren't mainstream. I just knew I wanted to rewrite how people felt about loose leaf tea."

In her shops, large blackboards are placed front and center to announce seasonal and popular blends. There are huge peeking walls decorated with honeycombs along the perimeter. Teas are displayed on endless shelving in plethoras: green teas, black teas, fruit teas, herbal, white, and paired blends throughout. Nearby, there are quaint French presses and teapots to tie it all together.

Her customers and employees, whom she affectionately refers to as 'TEAlovers' and 'TEAm' respectively, fill the busy-bee (pun intended) room. My adoration is clear as Brandi continues. "Our TEAm is very knowledgeable about the leaf-to-cup process and we actively find ways to make the experience of enjoying a cup of tea for everyone."

And by knowledgeable, Brandi truly means just that.

Just Add Honey works with tea farms around the world to bring it back to the US for their brand and smaller tea companies who care about where their leaf comes from. This extra step ultimately places Brandi in a region of tea blend producers who stand apart from your average brewer.

She credits her grandmother and mother as those who encouraged her to pursue her passion beyond the surface knowledge of the industry, as both of their memories and personal touch are hugely present in her shops. This generational awareness has ultimately been passed down to her children who she proudly teaches entrepreneurship through day-to-day operations of brick-and-mortar retail.

Not so bad for someone who didn't initially "fit" the industry profile.

And how does Brandi find time for self-care? "I usually reserve Sundays for myself and the family. Outside of work, I'm a mom and a wife. I enjoy doing everything and nothing with them. And that's the day we take a family hike or I make things. I enjoy making jam with leftover fruit from the local farmers at The Market. Or dehydrating fruits and vegetables. I also enjoy painting on canvas. And running."

And now with a second location added to her portfolio, and the sky being the only limit for future plans, Brandi is well-aware of where she's headed. "I will be expanding our leaf-to-cup offerings and tell TEAlovers more about the farm/farmer/families that pluck our leaves. We're spending the rest of the year getting better. All of the not-so-glamorous stuff that businesses have to do. Better processes. Better service. Better at being the best."

Being better at being the best. Checkmate.

For more of Brandi and her tea company, follow them on Instagram @justaddhoney.

Featured image courtesy of Brandi Shelton, Just Add Honey Tea Company

Before she was Amira Unplugged, rapper, singer, and a Becoming a Popstar contestant on MTV, she was Amira Daughtery, a twenty-five year-old Georgian, with aspirations of becoming a lawyer. “I thought my career path was going to lead me to law because that’s the way I thought I would help people,” Amira tells xoNecole. “[But] I always came back to music.”

A music lover since childhood, Amira grew up in an artistic household where passion for music was emphasized. “My dad has always been my huge inspiration for music because he’s a musician himself and is so passionate about the history of music.” Amira’s also dealt with deafness in one ear since she was a toddler, a condition which she says only makes her more “intentional” about the music she makes, to ensure that what she hears inside her head can translate the way she wants it to for audiences.

“The loss of hearing means a person can’t experience music in the conventional way,” she says. “I’ve always responded to bigger, bolder anthemic songs because I can feel them [the vibrations] in my body, and I want to be sure my music does this for deaf/HOH people and everyone.”

A Black woman wearing a black hijab and black and gold dress stands in between two men who are both wearing black pants and colorful jackets and necklaces

Amira Unplugged and other contestants on Becoming a Popstar

Amira Unplugged / MTV

In order to lift people’s spirits at the beginning of the pandemic, Amira began posting videos on TikTok of herself singing and using sign language so her music could reach her deaf fans as well. She was surprised by how quickly she was able to amass a large audience. It was through her videos that she caught the attention of a talent scout for MTV’s new music competition show for rising TikTok singers, Becoming a Popstar. After a three-month process, Amira was one of those picked to be a contestant on the show.

Becoming a Popstar, as Amira describes, is different from other music competition shows we’ve all come to know over the years. “Well, first of all, it’s all original music. There’s not a single cover,” she says. “We have to write these songs in like a day or two and then meet with our producers, meet with our directors. Every week, we are producing a full project for people to vote on and decide if they’d listen to it on the radio.”

To make sure her deaf/HOH audiences can feel her songs, she makes sure to “add more bass, guitar, and violin in unique patterns.” She also incorporates “higher pitch sounds with like chimes, bells, and piccolo,” because, she says, they’re easier to feel. “But it’s less about the kind of instrument and more about how I arrange the pattern of the song. Everything I do is to create an atmosphere, a sensation, to make my music a multi-sensory experience.”

She says that working alongside the judges–pop stars Joe Jonas and Becky G, and choreographer Sean Bankhead – has helped expand her artistry. “Joe was really more about the vocal quality and the timber and Becky was really about the passion of [the song] and being convinced this was something you believed in,” she says. “And what was really great about [our choreographer] Sean is that obviously he’s a choreographer to the stars – Lil Nas X, Normani – but he didn’t only focus on choreo, he focused on stage presence, he focused on the overall message of the song. And I think all those critiques week to week helped us hone in on what we wanted to be saying with our next song.”

As her star rises, it’s been both her Muslim faith and her friends, whom she calls “The Glasses Gang” (“because none of us can see!”), that continue to ground her. “The Muslim and the Muslima community have really gone hard [supporting me] and all these people have come together and I truly appreciate them,” Amira says. “I have just been flooded with DMs and emails and texts from [young muslim kids] people who have just been so inspired,” she says. “People who have said they have never seen anything like this, that I embody a lot of the style that they wanted to see and that the message hit them, which is really the most important thing to me.”

A Black woman wears a long, salmon pink hijab, black outfit and pink boots, smiling down at the camera with her arm outstretched to it.

Amira Unplugged

Amira Unplugged / MTV

Throughout the show’s production, she was able to continue to uphold her faith practices with the help of the crew, such as making sure her food was halal, having time to pray, dressing modestly, and working with female choreographers. “If people can accept this, can learn, and can grow, and bring more people into the fold of this industry, then I’m making a real difference,” she says.

Though she didn’t win the competition, this is only the beginning for Amira. Whether it’s on Becoming a Popstar or her videos online, Amira has made it clear she has no plans on going anywhere but up. “I’m so excited that I’ve gotten this opportunity because this is really, truly what I think I’m meant to do.”

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