One of several varieties of boba tea available at Black...

One of several varieties of boba tea available at Black Momma Tea & Cafe in Wheatley Heights. Credit: Newsday/Scott Vogel

One evening in 2012, Vanessa Braxton and five friends were playing a card game and sipping Ketel One. "It was one of those long card games that goes till morning," recalled Braxton, adding that at one point she announced her intention to begin distilling and selling her own vodka.

This was no booze-fueled pipe dream. Just a few years earlier, Braxton had retired from her job as an MTA structural engineer, a tenure during which she oversaw such projects as the building of the New York Transit Museum and Fulton Street Transit Center, and the rebuilding of Manhattan’s South Ferry subway station after 9/11. In other words, learning the mechanics of distilling would be a walk in the park.

But she also decided on a name for her vodka on that fateful night, and this time the Ketel One did play a part.

"I’m going to call my brand Black Momma," Braxton announced. "I’m Black and I’m a momma." Reaction from fellow cardplayers was mixed.

"They went, OK, how much has she had to drink?" laughed Braxton. "And then it just evolved to the logo and everything. All in 15 minutes with a bottle of Ketel One vodka."

Just one year later she began bottling Black Momma at her very own Wyandanch distillery, and in the years since has birthed over 400 items under that brand name. In addition to dozens of varieties of Black Momma teas, there are vials of truffle-flavored Black Momma hemp oil, pumpkin latte-flavored Black Momma dog treats that look like frosted doughnuts, Black Momma organic cinnamon agave syrup, and a clever carafe for steeping coffee and tea that Braxton created with the help of a Chinese designer and emblazoned with the Black Momma name.

Braxton's latest venture, Black Momma Tea & Cafe, was originally scheduled to open in 2020, but was delayed by the pandemic. It debuted in Wheatley Heights in early December with grab-and-go drinks like non-dairy boba tea in two sizes ($5.50-$6.25) and non-alcoholic hot toddies ($3-$3.75), but what really sets the 4,600-square-foot store apart is the large number of packaged goods on offer. Some of these are Braxton’s own—one wall showcases loose-leaf and bagged Black Momma teas in countless flavors—but many are products by other female, minority, veteran and/or local entrepreneurs.

The Braxton-curated collection includes a large number of newish food and drink items, high-quality products that you may not know, but should. Coastal Craft Kombucha—by Oceanside’s Rachel Rappa—is there, as are cans of Moment, a "meditation drink" by New Yorker Aisha Chottani. Reveal, a beverage made from cold-brewed avocado pits, is the creation of two Philadelphia-based young women, Sheetal Bahirat and Zuri Masud. Still another, a refreshing variety of lemonades branded B Chill, is the work of Kinyah Bean, a 13-year-old Tennessee girl whom Braxton mentored, helping her to bring the product to market.

But most of her focus remains local. In January, she plans to begin selling meal prep kits at her cafe, part of a commitment to bring more healthy options to Wheatley Heights.

Black Momma Tea & Cafe is at 16 Colonial Springs Rd. in Wyandanch, 631-443-2202, Opening hours are Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Closed Saturday and Sunday.

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