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The Reintroduction of Chai
By Rosanna Mazzei

Chai has put a little zest into the retail café world, soaking up profits steadily for the past few years. Students flocking to the cafés after classes have been spotted sipping the beverage, which they like to order with milk or honey. Meanwhile, the younger generation of business executives has given this once obscure drink major attention, picking them up on route to the office

How a product like chai becomes a trend tends to be a result of targeted marketing conceptualization and research. In the West, people generally find products from the East to have an alluring quality to them. Based on this tendency, chai has recently caught the attention of trend analysts, making its way across the world and onto the tabletops of cafés.

Americans in particular have been lured to the flavor of chai for its exotic qualities. For the most part, chai has been enjoyed in the instant powder or in the syrup form. Ready-to-drink chai in the Western world has Starbucks, among others, to thank for its rise in popularity. Yet, while Starbucks should be afforded its usual merit for spawning customer interest in yet another gourmet product, it sent the lovely little product to the masses disguised in a ready-to-drink form. Companies like Oregon Chai, Pacific Chai, and Big Train have managed to secure their places on the shelves of coffeehouses. The downfall is that chai prepared traditionally has a unique flavor and people who are first introduced to pre-made chais may have an expectation that all chai should taste that way. It is time, now, for the reintroduction of chai. It is for this reason that chai has been, and continues to be, on the order forms of most loose tea manufacturers, but has only accounted for an average of 2-5% of sales.

For centuries this spicy hot beverage has been a symbol of tradition in the homes of millions of families in India. It’s customary that during a visit to a household, the first thing offered to a guest is a cup of chai. While there aren’t any formal ceremonial ways of preparing chai, it is a ritual in many Indian families to enjoy a cup in the morning and in the afternoon. There are as many variations to making chai as there are regions in India. For example, chai from Kashmir is primarily flavored with cardamom pods and almonds, while in south India tea is generally served British style, in porcelain cups with sugar and milk but with no spices.

Chai is such an important part of India’s social customs that they have their own baristas attending to the brew of the drink called Chaiwallahs. These chai vendors are a staple of the community and their stands are most often the meeting point for news , and yes, gossip. They are found all over India; from train stations in Bombay, to tiny villages around the country. This kind of tea, more specifically known as Masalla Chai, is made up of a unique blend of ground spices, including cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, cloves, cardamom and pepper. Careful selection of high quality spices is critical to harvesting the basis for a quality chai product. Leaves have to be slowly dried in the sun, one of several processes in which chai demands meticulous attention in order to ensure that the most subtle flavors are captured. The right grinding procedure is equally as important and should be carried out in a calculated manner so as to create the appropriate balance of flavors.

One company fueling the loose chai-drinking trend in its natural form into the spotlight is the Dallas, Texas-based e-tailer Chai.com. The company has its roots in the tiny rural village of Veravil, in the Western state of Gujarat in India. Chai.com sells chai teas and related products, with an expertise built upon years of emmersion in the local spice market.

“My grandfather moved to South Africa from India when both were British colonies,” comments Kamini Mamdani, “and there he became a businessman. As things began to shift politically in South Africa, my parents decided to move to America for a better future for their children. We still have our family house and farm in India, which is a priceless link to our past.”

Chai.com has been a family effort; the concept for the company was developed by owner Kamini Mamdani, using a recipe from her mother, Mani Vallabh. With the help of her husband, Kamini developed a web site and structured the back-end of the business, including its on-line order processing. Her parents oversee the administration procedures and her cousin, a marketing consusltant, helps position chai.com as a new player in the world of tea.

Kamini Mamdani has developed her company to cater to the increasing demand for chai in the tea sector. “I think the market for chai is very promising….While there are more chai brands than ever before, customers will tend to be loyal to flavors they prefer from vendors who pay attention to packaging, service and quality….It is also quickly becoming general knowledge that tea, both black and green, offers many health benefits. Chai augments that with the therapeutic benefits of the spices included. For that reason and for its flavor, chai can be a formidable competitor to coffee.

Mamdani’s business is strictly a Web venture for now. While there are other companies out there selling chai on line, they can be said to service all the regional flavor preferences of India. Chai.com’s tea is specific to the state of Gujarat and use all the spices commonly found in that area.

“We started this business when I was in graduate school,” comments Mamdani, “and having a store was not a feasible idea. So we decided to try an on-line store and so far we have been very satisfied with the response. We are in our second year of business and our revenue has increased 200%. This occurred in tandem with the acquisition of the URL, Chai.com, which instantly quadrupled the amount of traffic to our website.”

“Our customers are all individual purchasers. We are working to develop partnerships with stores and coffee and tea shops. We expect growth to continue as we explore distribution channels domestically and internationally. Our orders have come from all over the world, including Brazil, Egypt, Italy, England and Japan.”

“The key,” she notes, “is to have a customer stay loyal to your chai….We are happy being e-tailers, but have had many inquiries from coffee and tea shops interested in serving our products, so our focus will be on developing those partnerships.”

Instant chai has enjoyed its moment in the spotlight. Now it’s time for retailers to get ready to welcome the pure product. “The benefit to instant chai is that it is much more accessible and it piques the interest of chai drinkers. We have had several customers who have to come us by way of drinking instant chai who say they are now ready to try “authentic” chai. Our challenge at Chai.com is to continue to offer chai as we know it but still make it convenient for our customers.

If you would like more information, you can contact Chai.com at (214) 642-6464, 1.888.986.CHAI, or visit www.chai.com

Tea & Coffee - January/February 2001

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