Huddled inside a small dorm room at the University of Florida, Gail Hamilton and Natalia Napoleon De Bens dreamed about starting a business together. More than ten years later, a brainstorm about a flavor-packed tea bag made it a reality.
For the past two years, Hamilton, De Bens, and two other friends — Lauren Fernandez and Melissa Chamorro — have run Lemon City Tea. The four, who are all first-generation Americans, have developed more than ten blends of tea, each inspired by their unique ancestry with a hint of Miami flair.
"This brand is our love letter to Miami," De Bens says. "It's our way of expressing how we feel about this city and our excitement over its evolution of where it is and where it's going."
The women's backgrounds are a brew of Latin American and Caribbean cultures, with ties to Haiti, Jamaica, Nicaragua, and Cuba. Their tea pays tribute to those roots.
"We play with a lot of ingredients to showcase all of the diverse areas we are connected to," De Bens says. "We are still very connected to our heritage and home countries."
Hamilton and De Bens had been keen on tea for quite some time thanks to study-abroad opportunities in Asia.
"In graduate school, you either become hooked on Diet Coke or coffee," De Bens says. "Because I was in Thailand and Gail was in China, we both fell in love with tea instead."
"Our conversations evolved into starting a tea company," Hamilton adds. "But it took Lauren, who also loves tea, to help us get it off the ground. It was too big for just two people."
In January 2014, they came up with the company name, which pays tribute to the historic northeast Miami neighborhood now known as Little Haiti. Today they source tea leaves from across the world and combine them with tropical botanicals, natural herbs, and fruits. For years, Hamilton, a former brand manager at Bacardi, and De Bens, a wealth management lawyer, hosted midnight tea-tastings to perfect the blends.
"When we started Lemon City Tea, all four of us were working very demanding corporate jobs," Hamilton says. "This was definitely a full-time job, but it happened after dark."
Lemon City Tea doesn't have a brick-and-mortar location, but its teas can be found across Miami at more than 20 restaurants.
"It's a testament to our strength with how much we've been able to accomplish though we've done it all in addition to our careers and families," De Bens says.
Before the end of 2016, the women hope to launch Lemon City Tea blends in bottles, which will be available in stores and eateries across the Magic City.
"There's going to be a lot of new products out there from us soon," Hamilton says. "It's going to be cool to see the brand out in Miami in a different way."