An attempt to make chai cool again


January 6, 2013

R Krishna,DNA (Daily News & Analysis)
Mumbai, January 6, 2013

Unity in diversity is one of those maxims that makes no sense in India, except in the rarest of contexts. Chai, a colonial import, is one such factor that Indians can identify with regardless of class and religion. That’s why it’s surprising that there are few places that serve good tea outside of our homes. Tea from vending machines tastes artificial. At hotels, the decoction is rarely fresh. And though tapris do serve good tea, they are over boiled and sickly sweet.

“If I ask you to recommend one place in Mumbai that offers great tea, you won’t be able to come up with a clear answer,” says Amuleek Singh Bijral, founder of the Bangalore-based tea chain, Chai Point. According to him there is a demand for good chai that is not being met. “In terms of sheer volumes, tea is consumed far more than coffee in India,” says Bijral, “It is just that nobody has given it the kind of branding that coffee enjoys. There is an opportunity for organised players to come in to address this need.”

A challenge Starbucks faced

However, tea chains like Chai Point, which have come up in the last five years or so, face an uphill battle. Tea’s popularity in Indian homes, in fact, acts against its image. Coffee is considered a lifestyle statement, while tea is ordinary. It’s easy to convince a consumer to spend upward of Rs 80 for a cup of coffee. However, even Rs 30-40 for a cup of tea is considered expensive. Bijral is aware of the problem. “Starbucks had a similar challenge almost 30 years ago when they opened their chain in the US. Coffee was a drink every American prepared in his home. But they created a brand that convinced Americans to spend money on a cup of coffee,” says Bijral. Over the years Starbucks and other coffee chains developed a model such that the coffee chains’ popularity has less to do with the beverage itself, and more to do with the whole experience. Tea chains, on the other hand, are blazing a new path.

Chai Point, for instance, targets the white-collar worker. “Nobody in office takes a cappuccino break. We take a chai break. Office-goers are not looking for a lounge,” says Bijral, “Our outlets are in areas with lots of offices around. We want our customers to come to our outlets several times in a day to have a freshly brewed cup of tea at a hygienic place.”

Delhi-based Tea Halt has put up kiosks in colleges, marketplaces and in office areas. “We first wanted to introduce customers to various kinds of teas before putting up cafes which add to the cost,” says Ankur Agrawal, co-founder, Tisane which runs Tea Halt, “The range of teas we offer depend on the area in which we have put the kiosks in. For instance, near colleges our tea starts at Rs10. Near offices, we offer teas that are more expensive.”

Variety holds the key

While both Chai Point and Tea Halt stress on convenience, Golden Tips, the Kolkata-based tea company has taken a different approach with their own tea lounge, Tea Cosy. “We want to make tea glamorous by offering large variety of teas, as well as sell equipment such as infusers and teapots, stuff that people haven’t tried before,” says Bala Sarda, vice president, business development, Golden Tips.

Sarda says that customers can sample white tea, oolongs, and other varieties of tea at Tea Cosy, and buy the leaves of the ones they like. The leaves can be a blend from different tea estates or sourced from a single estate from different regions in India and the world. “Consumers can get a simple cup of tea at home. What we want to do is to introduce them to the world of tea. The sheer variety of teas on offer and the growing awareness about tea’s health benefits is attracting younger consumers (18-30 age bracket) to our outlets,” she says.

Still, tea chains attract a miniscule crowd compared to coffee chains. But if global trends are anything to go by, things can only get better. Earlier this year Starbucks paid $650 mn to take over the tea company, Teavana. Just two weeks ago Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz announced that apart from introducing Teavana products at their own outlets, the company would open standalone Teavana stores to “do for tea what it [Starbucks] did for coffee”.

It is some such move that will make tea chains contemporary, says Devangshu Dutta, chief executive of consultancy firm Third Eyesight, “It would have been easier for tea chains 20 years ago when coffee was not present in the urban market. Things could change in the future. But if past experience is anything to go by, it will not be an Indian company that will cause the turnaround. Tea chains will need an approval stamp from the West.”