Globalisation and an open economy has introduced Indians to new tastes and food habits. But if there is one thing that has remained unchanged and unaffected in spite of all the change, it is our love of tea, or chai, as most Indians know it. The mushrooming of coffee chains across India, that seemed to create a new culture of socialising among Indian youth, has not changed the Indian habit of gathering around a roadside tapri during or after office hours to discuss everything from work to cricket, nor have they altered our need to start a day with a cup of tea, infused with ginger in winters and cardamom in summers.

It was only a matter of time before someone was going to try and capitalise on this passion for tea by serving it in a new sophisticated urban set-up that would allow people to savour chai in a way that can rival the existing major coffee chains around.

Two young professionals and IIT alumni, Raghav Verma and Nitin Saluja, who were working as young professionals in USA, decided to leave their jobs and do something novel. In November 2012, they opened the first branch of their new venture called Chaayos at Cyber City, Gurugram. Talking to Guardian 20 Verma revealed that right from the beginning, they had a chain of cafes rather than one single restaurant in mind, “It was Nitin’s idea to have a place which people can choose when they go out for  chai, in India the ratio of consumption of tea to coffee is 30:1 in terms of cups, yet the market was untapped.”

But they weren’t going to have the market all to themselves for long. In January, 2013, another team of young entrepreneurs under the leadership of Robin Jha, who had been working in the financial sector for some years, launched Tpot Café. His motivation wasn’t very different from his rivals, “Chai is the most preferred beverage in India and the concept of chai-nashta is very common to the Indian household. At Tpot, we aim to leverage our culture’s favourite beverage – tea – and the nashta that goes along with it.”

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The trend continued when another IITian, Pankaj Judge forayed into the market by launching Chai Thela in 2014. Maninder Singh, operations head of Chai Thela told Guardian 20 that “The idea behind this venture is to create hygienic chai-nashta joints. Anything you get on a roadside thela, be it freshly brewed chai, bun maska, maggie etc., we serve great quality of these in the most hygienic form. We make our chai from purified mineral water, sulfur-less sugar and serve it in ITC-graded cups.”

Interiors of Chai Thela at Logix Mall in Sector 32, Noida.

All three companies try to personalize the tea experience of their customers. At Chaayos, you can customize your cup of tea in some 12,000 ways while other two cafes also allow modification. All three chains have a very diverse range of unique tea concoctions on their menu. While Chaayos has the green chilli flavoured tea, Chai Thela has fruit-flavoured teas like mango tea, apricot tea alongside other varieties such as Rajwadi chai and Makhan chai. Tpot Café has its own set of unique offerings like herbal teas, premium organic teas, white tea, hibiscus tea, red berry tea and flavours like Camomille, Jasmine, Chinese green tea, Indian summer etc. But in all these cafes, it is the desi masala variety chai that rules the roost. Varieties of tea that are unique and made in an unfamiliar manner, like without milk, are still a long way behind in popularity but they are being tried, as Verma said, “There are takers for these teas and they are developing loyal fan followings.”  These cafes have also revived the culture of drinking tea from kulhad. It is no longer a humble way to have your chai but a special one.

“We make our chai from purified mineral water, sulfur-less sugar and serve it in ITC-graded cups,” says Maninder Singh, operations head of Chai Thela.

Along with tea, these cafes also serve a large variety of snacks which range from modern interpretation of traditional dishes to the more continental-type fare.

The target audience for these institutions is bound to be youngsters but since the love of tea cuts across generations, they are not the only ones being catered to. As Jha puts it, “our audience, is not restricted to any age or profile. We cater to everyone who is a tea lover.” His view is echoed by Verma, “Initially, our target audience were the young professionals but while they are still the majority of our customers, they are not the only ones.” Maninder Singh’s view is no different, “We are targeting IT parks, college campuses and high street areas. In India chai is consumed by youngsters, working professionals and older generation too. In short, the whole of India.”

The tea used by these places is sourced mainly from Assam. Tpot has a unique arrangement, “All our special teas are organic so we procure it only from our empanelled list of 10 tea gardens,” Jha said. Chaayos too is looking to buy tea directly from the farms rather than through intermediaries.

There are no unique equipments that are used by these outlets but they have standardized the process of tea making to ensure consistency of quality, “Each tea requires to be brewed at an optimum temperature along with the right ingredients. We have set our processes and trained our people so that the customers get the appropriate quality every time they visit the café,” Jha told Guardian 20. At Chai Thela, they have a different approach, “Chai is handmade and we make every chai on order basis,” Singh said.

The success of these companies has resulted in branches opening up all over NCR. Chaayos has 23 outlets across NCR. Chai Thela has 10 outlets in the region. Tpot has so far opened 21 branches. While Chaayos plans to open branches in other metro cities, they already have 4 in Mumbai, Tpot is looking to spread to 4-5 more cities by 2017. Chai Thela is focused on NCR but they too seek to open outlets in cities like Pune and Hyderabad. Chaayos also plans to directly enter the tea market by selling their own variety of tea leaves, “We want Chaayos to be linked to as many cups of tea in the country as possible, even if somebody is having tea at home, we want it to be linked to Chaayos,” Verma said.

There are all the signs which suggest that chains like Café Coffee Day and Starbucks are going to face a stiff competition. After all, if the ambience is equally good, the earthy chai is always more appealing to the Indian palette than its more glamorous cousin coffee.

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