The story of Marietta-based Tropic Isle Living is not just one of a successful business, although with over 100,000 products being shipped a week and three farms in Jamaica, it certainly is. It is also a story of love, family, hard work, perseverance and staying true to one’s self and one’s home.
Tropic Isle Living, a brand of hair and skin products, found its start in 1992 when Michael and Lois Hines were working in Bronx, New York, with a bush doctor named Baba Rashan Abdul Hakim. Baba Rashan, as Lois called him, was a mentor to the Jamaican newlyweds. Michael had just moved to New York to be with Lois after attending the University of Georgia on a track scholarship. Lois’ mother lived in New York, so that’s where she wanted to be.
When Michael approached Baba Rashan one day after he found out the fish company he was working for was selling farm-raised fish and his convictions would not allow him to work there anymore, Baba Rashan had an answer.
“He said, ‘You know, why don’t you do the Jamaican castor oil?’” Lois explained. “So I went to Jamaica and I put a gallon in my suitcase. I had someone make it for me and we started with this one gallon. Michael always believed, ‘Just start. One foot in front of the other. Just start.’”
Castor oil was often either cold-pressed without any treatment or over-roasted to the point that the nutrients were burned into oblivion. The Hineses, using the tricks and recipes of each of their grandmothers, developed a type of Jamaican black castor oil that was roasted just enough to give off a nutty scent and bring the nutrients to full potential.
“We pick the seeds, they come in little pods, and they burst out. After we pick the seeds, we shell it off by parchment and the parching, we roast the seed, we boil the seed, then we skim off the oil. So it’s a tedious process. I used to see my grandmother make it. She was the one who instilled in myself the keeping the tradition alive. Michael used to have his own personal garden so he got connected to the Earth like that. He would plant things as a child. So you get that sense of tradition from your grandparents teaching you,” Lois explained.
After Lois brought back that first gallon of their own Jamaican black castor oil — the bottle of which she still has in her office — it was time to go to work.
“We started and my kitchen was the office and my dining room was the bottling area. One of the bedrooms was one of the storage areas. Needless to say, I had grease all over my hands. Needless to say, I didn’t have a house! I had a business for a house. I just remembered, we were 24, 25, we didn’t have children yet, and (Michael) said to me, ‘Can you imagine if we even just sell a five-gallon bucket and the five-gallon bucket leads to a drum? Do you know that can feed us for a month? That one drum?’ I said, ‘Yes, honey.’ He said, ‘I can see you now, flying all over the place with your suitcase, making business deals and I will just be in the background making sure everything is alright. And it happened,” Lois said, with a tear in her eye and a smile.
The first bottle was sold to Baba Rashan. The next few were sold as Lois would push a small cart through the Bronx, selling them to passersby and health food stores.
“We didn’t have a car or any money at the time. We would walk around and some people would take it, some people wouldn’t. But we were laying the foundation for educating them on the multi-uses of the oil. Because, in Jamaica, Michael coined it as the all-purpose healing oil. It grows your hair, your lashes, your brows, it helps with healing your skin, it has so many more uses than just hair,” Lois Hines said.
Over the next few years, the Hines family grew with the birth of two children and the business was steadily growing as well. They had just moved to Georgia, where a friend of Lois’ was living. She told them their children could get a better education at a lower cost of living in Georgia than in New York, and they were ready for a change.
“It was the best move we made in life,” Lois said. “Now, we could focus on the family and our business.”
But just as that move was complete 12 years ago, Lois got a phone call that would change their lives and the course of Tropic Isle Living.
“A client called us and said to us, ‘Do you have so-and-so, I’m running out of your castor oil.’ I said, ‘Where are you calling me from?’ She said, ‘California.’ I said, ‘How did you hear about us?’ So she said, ‘From the internet.’ We were just making the oil, nothing else. Michael and I got scared. We were organically growing the business,” Lois said.
The internet post her client was referring to was made by Valerie Bremang, owner of two beauty websites, Hairlicious and Hairlista. She had purchased the Tropic Isle Living castor oil and used it, then documented her journey via her website and YouTube. After that, the Hineses launched the company on Amazon — the first Jamaican black castor oil sold on the mega-internet retailer — and orders began pouring in.
“I give her all the praise because she was the catalyst for change to push the word out there,” Lois said.
The company continued to grow, although this meant many nights of the couple and their children sleeping in sleeping bags on the floors of their headquarters as Michael and Lois filled bottle after bottle to keep up with demand. They would even pack up their car and make the 14-hour drive to New York and back to deliver their products to the many stores there that were carrying their products. After outgrowing one location after another, they finally found a home in Marietta, which was also closer to their own home in Acworth.
But, in January 2015, tragedy struck. Michael was diagnosed with neuroblastoma and was given, at most, 18 months to live. He passed away in August 2016.
“I tell people, ‘You can live a lifetime in 18 months,’” Lois said. “We talked about everything. He had a great impact on the woman I am today, and he was such a wonderful father. He spent most of the time in those last few months the backyard, listening to the waterfall and the birds. I took him back to the place where UGA first saw him run. We traveled to Jamaica. We had our last Christmas with his family. He wanted to go to Africa, but he never got to. I respected him very much. I respected him a lot. And I always told him how grateful I was for him coming up with the concept for Tropic Isle Living and providing us with an amazing life,” Lois said, fighting back tears.
Lois is now the sole owner of Tropic Isle Living as it continues to grow, but she sees the business not as a business, but as a legacy for her late husband.
“Each time when someone says they want a bottle of Jamaican black castor oil, they keep his dream alive.”