The first time Dominique White went to sell her homemade tonic, she was so nervous that she almost didn’t get out of the car. Unable to sleep that night, she’d awoke at 3:00 a.m. She knew that vendors sometimes set up tables along the sidewalk across the street from the Lake Merritt farmers market on Saturdays, in front of the now-vacated Vegan Mob location on Lake Park Avenue, and she’d decided to do the same. 

“I got out there at 5 a.m. and I was just sitting in the car, for like an hour,” she said, debating whether to stay or go back home, her mind consumed with self-doubt. “What if people don’t like it? What if I wasted my money?”

But she stuck to the plan—and when she saw the reactions to her product, she knew she was onto something good. She sold out on that first day, New Year’s Eve, in 2022.

Closeup of a someone's hands pouring a large measuring cup of golden liquid into a glass bottle.
Dominique White pours ginger tonic into bottles. Credit: Kathryn Styer Martínez Credit: Kathryn Styer Martínez

Long before she was an entrepreneur, White grew up on 86th Avenue, with multiple stops elsewhere in the East Bay. Her childhood years were intense, as she spent time in different homes and shelters until she moved in with a friend at age 14. 

“I lived in Hayward, Castro Valley, Richmond, Vallejo, Pinole; I went to five different middle schools, three different high schools,” White recounted. “So yeah, I’ve bounced around a lot.”

Distance grew between White and her mom after she moved out. But they reconnected when she was a young adult, and it was White’s mom who encouraged her to start her own business.

White ended up naming her business—Aleama’s Tonic—after her mother, who passed away last year, in early April.

“I can almost still hear her voice telling me, ‘You need to get your business license, Dominique! You need to do this!’” said White. “That was really the push for me to get going last year.”

Bottles of Aleama’s Tonic are on display and for sale at Kinfolx in Oakland. Credit: Kathryn Styer Martínez

She started making tonics because she wanted to share something helpful with others. White said she used to like chewing on ginger to settle her stomach, and it would work almost immediately. That led to her playing around with steeping ginger. 

“I wanted to make something that was warm, like a tea,” she said. It took her a couple of years to perfect the recipe.

In the beginning, she was still learning about the health benefits of honey. According to the Mayo Clinic’s website, “honey is used as an anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and antibacterial agent. People commonly use honey orally to treat coughs and topically to treat burns and promote wound healing.” Now, sourcing local, raw honey for her recipes is a top priority. White said she researches where her food comes from as much as possible to ensure her ingredients are procured and produced honestly and ethically.

Dominique White stirs honey, steeped ginger, and other ingredients at Kitchen@812 where she rents commercial kitchen space in Pinole, CA on Sept. 22, 2023. Credit: Kathryn Styer Martínez

White, 32, said she learned a lot about the benefits of eating healthy while working a previous job at Whole Foods on Harrison Street in Oakland. The training there, she said, included learning about healthy eating and drinking habits. “I appreciate that place for that because a lot of stuff I wouldn’t have known about.”

Dominique makes three variations of tonic: the original recipe with honey, one with elderberry, and another with hibiscus. She created the original when she was 19, about the same time she reconnected with her mom. 

“She tried it and she pretty much loved it,” White remembers.

Dominique White smiles and chats with another shopper while she selects fruits and vegetables at the Grand Lake farmers market. Credit: Kathryn Styer Martínez

This isn’t White’s first foray into the food business. She’s also a co-owner at the co-op Arizmendi bakery on Lakeshore Avenue, where she’s worked for seven years. 

Her time with the co-op, she said, has expanded how she views her own labor. “I don’t know if I can go back to a spot where I have hella managers,” said White, who added that she’s now more entrepreneurial-minded. “Working for myself, [having] financial freedom, just being able to help others and be able to do things the way that I want to do them—that’s part of it all.”

After being on the move for so much of her life, White now owns a home on 84th Avenue, not far from where she grew up. Having come nearly full circle, she envisions her home being the center of life for her family and friends and somewhere for them to turn to, whether times are hard or sweet.

Dominique White in her home kitchen in Oakland. Credit: Kathryn Styer Martínez

“I am naturally a caregiver,” said White. “Part of the reason why I like to be out there [selling] on Saturdays, talking directly to customers, is because I like hearing their stories and I like telling them my story.”  

Drinking ginger tonic, she added, also changed her life when it came to her gut health, and it’s something she believes can also help others. White doesn’t claim any miracle cures—but she does feel good when people share all the reasons why they drink her tonic. “That stuff makes me happy,” she said of receiving the feedback. “Like, I’m actually like helping someone in one way or another.”

Between the passing of her mom, a long-term relationship ending, and financial struggles, the past year has been hard, said White. But the customers keep her coming back, and the venture that White started with $250 a little over a year ago is now not only helping her financially but sustaining her spirit—and honoring the memory of her mother, whom she feels connected to every time she cooks. 

“She’s around in one way or another,” said White. “That’s what I believe.”

Kathryn Styer Martínez is a nationally recognized, award winning journalist from Northern California. Her work often explores the intersections of race, gender, and class across beats. She focuses on photography, audio and print production.