Growing up in the United States as the children of immigrants, Ani and Ayan Sanyal were acutely aware of the differences between American and South Asian culture. But with their new company, Kolkata Chai Co., the brothers are hoping to successfully blend the two — not just through their chai, but with the cafe itself.
In South Asian culture, chai is a longstanding daily ritual of balance, a time for family and friends to come together. But the brothers struggled for a long time to find a cup of chai in New York that tasted like home.
Chai is "an entire product that's so deep and ancestral to our heritage," explains Ani, yet one that's been "exported and told by people who don't come from the culture."
"In reality, it is the most democratic drink in India," he adds. "It's the place where everybody is coming around for a cup of chai. ... The story has been improperly told here."
To tell the story properly, he and his brother brewed up a business idea of their own. They would bring authentic chai culture to the city, and they would name their company after their family's hometown: Kolkata, India.
The Sanyal brothers started Kolkata Chai Co. as a side hustle in early 2018, while working at their digital marketing agency, Green Room Creative. They began doing pop-up events to gauge the market for authentic chai, and the response was overwhelmingly positive.
But as their pop-ups became increasingly popular, they ran into a new problem: Lugging their equipment to and from each new cafe was physically difficult and expensive. So they decided to open up a permanent location in New York City's East Village.
As the Sanyal brothers built their business, it was important to them to get the details right.
In 2018, Ayan spent a month traveling throughout West Bengal — Kolkata is the capital of the state, which is located in Eastern India — learning everything he could about chai. He explored the differences between the way chai is served in the Bengali streets versus in highbrow chai cafes in the U.S. "There's this tea culture that is all-encompassing, and I just wanted to be a sponge and take it all in so we could represent that authentically," he says.
Years of experimentation paid off with Ayan's creation of Kolkata Chai Co.'s masala chai, the cafe's most popular product. He also serves as the company's head "chai wallah," the person who makes or serves chai.
It took the brothers nearly nine months to get the cafe ready for customers, and they opened their doors in September 2019.
Since their family faced financial insecurity, the brothers say their parents were initially hesitant about them venturing into business. But Ani and Ayan say their process has largely dispelled those fears.
"Every little interaction was well thought out, but when you do that, that's an expensive process," says Ani, who handles most of the business aspects of the cafe. Still, the brothers expect to begin turning a profit in 2020.
And they hope that they can inspire other minority entrepreneurs to embrace their roots with their businesses.
"To have something that reads Kolkata Chai in the middle of Manhattan," Ani says, "I don't think [my parents] ever saw that" as a possibility.
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