When Monique (Nikki) Sasser was a child growing up in Kentucky she would often come home to find her father hunched over a stove, on which sat a pot of steaming, slowly swirling tea made from the roots or bark of something unusual. Sometimes it was sassafras others it was birch or sweetfern.
Then one day, it was ginger.
“Daddy brought home a big chunk and boiled it up and said, ‘here, taste this.’ I loved the flavor so much that I became fascinated to the point where I wanted to get the maximum possible flavor out of it,” Nikki said.
That she did, after a lot of trial and error. She would serve it at dinner to friends, who loved the sweetly pungent liquid and began requesting more. “I had so many jars in the fridge, my daughter told me she couldn’t find the food,” she said.
The Church of the Messiah, where she worships, agreed to let her basically begin her company in the basement kitchen. Around the mid-’90s the single mom became a certified fitness instructor working with various organizations. Then, as that began to dry up, she started to concentrate more on the tea.
Nikki’s efforts included hustling tea from a pedestrian bridge overpass close to the Eastern Market. “The road for me has not been an easy one,” said Sasser, 46, who returned to Detroit, where she was born, in 1979. “That was a tough time.”
But soon, with a lot of help from her daughter, who is company vice president, Nikki’s Ginger Tea nabbed its first commercial placement — Cafe Kemet on East Jefferson. Now she’s found a home at Hiller’s. We’re delighted to have her AND that delicious elixir, which comes in various flavors and sizes ranging from pints to gallons. The stuff has a kick, and is, yes, great for you. Ginger is loudly touted by Dr. Oz the current TV medical guru and has long been used homeopathically to treat chicken pox, bronchitis, coughs, colds, digestive disorders, headaches, and more. It has also been used on things like snakebite.
Anyway, Nikki was recently, and very deservedly honored as one of Crain’s entrepreneurs of the year at an event where I had the honor of giving the keynote address. It’s not hard to see why. A portion of her company’s proceeds go to support an exercise program at her church and she’s mentoring a young lady who wants to go into the retail business.
Nikki also spends as much time as possible with the area’s youth. Teen girls who live in her church’s rather hardscrabble neighborhood often wander in while she’s working, wanting to help. She takes them up on it. “I’d rather let them do that, be around here, than getting into things that they shouldn’t,” said Nikki, whose company is based in the Russell Bazaar, a converted art space in a revamped building along I-75 in Detroit. “It’s important to treat people with respect, and now these are young people who are now growing up in the church,” she said, adding that her brother also works for the company.
The woman is damned inspiring, listen to her: “All the things I dealt with as a single mom, it’s been very, very difficult but I want to be with the winners, it’s in my bones. I’ve always wanted to be the best I can, and to give as much as I can. That’s what I live by.”
I’ll sip to that. Nikki’s Ginger Tea. By the way… I drink it every day.