Local Vendor Spotlight: Chaiwala Chai
This week we're talking about Chaiwala Chai, a small company based in Toronto that makes fresh blended chai tea! We sat down with Rebecca, one of the co-founders of Chaiwala, to tell us more about what goes into each cup of their delicious tea, and how they got started.
We have free sampler bags of Chaiwala Chai for the first five orders over $20 this week! Hurry and get your orders in, and taste the difference of fresh chai!
Scroll down to read our conversation.
Bikeables: So, tell us a bit about Chaiwala Chai! What's a "chaiwala", and how did you guys get started?
Rebecca: Wala actually means teamaker, and chai means tea! Eamon and I travelled through India and Nepal and these countries where chai is consumed multiple times a day because it's believed to be more than a beverage; it's something that balances your mind, body, and soul. We loved drinking our chai from the chaiwalas everyday, and when we got back to Toronto we realized that a lot of chai in the marketplace was a syrup-based. We couldn't find the chai we had tasted abroad anywhere, so we thought we would make it!
What makes our chai blend unique is that we freshly grind the spices in each batch. There are 10 unique spices to our blend. We add fresh ginger root, which gives it moisture, and then lock in the freshness and preserve the ginger with Canadian organic honey. It gives the tea a touch of sweetness, and a sticky texture. It's a wet chai blend, as opposed to a dry loose-leaf tea, which makes it really full-bodied and great for lattes, teas, and iced chai.
B: What made you decide to start your business?
R: We had tasted real chai while we were overseas, and it was so much more about the experience of tasting that chai. You meet with the maker, someone who is preparing it fresh for you. That's something we couldn't find in Toronto, so we were compelled to start a business that brought that ritual back to Toronto. And also something that was healthier. People are more health conscious and want to know what's in their products. We felt like there was a need, and so we started making it, kind of organically, for a cafe Eamon was working for at the time, and it expanded as they started selling and getting more feedback.
There was never a moment where we sat down and said, "hey, let's start this business!" It was more like, oh, let's make this cafe a batch of chai and see how it goes, and then maybe the cafe next to it would be interested. We thought it would be fun, but then two or three months in we realized this would be a viable business.
B: So you experienced pretty dramatic growth in those first few months, and I can understand why! How did you manage that? Did you launch right into the business, then? Or was it something you pursued on the side?
R: Eamon and I had been travelling for almost three years -- we were actually in the earthquake in Nepal, which was completely horrible. I've never experienced anything like it. After that, we had this six month continued trip plan, but decided instead to come home to Toronto. Our plan wasn't to come home and settle, start a business, start careers; we were very travel focused. So we both got hospitality jobs -- Eamon in the cafe industry, and I got a job in a restaurant.
His cafe was serving chai that was a syrup, and he thought this can be better, and I don't like serving this syrup, so I'm going to make a batch of chai. I was still working full time, and it was in the back of our minds that this was something fun while we were home, but it was never going to be something that keeps us here.
About two months into it, I sat down with him and worked on a business plan and realized it was viable, so we decided to pursue it more full-time together. We weren't quitting big corporate jobs to do it, but we decided if we were going to do it, we would give it our best shot.
B: It sounds like things really took off quickly for you, and you hit on a real need.
R: For sure. But our product is definitely unique, so in some ways it's been a bit of a struggle to change people's behaviours, to convince people that it's worth waiting a bit longer for a better cup of chai.
B: On that subject, just talking about challenges, I wonder if you could talk a bit more about some of the challenges you faced starting out. Is there anything that sticks out?
R: At first we were literally operating out of a basement apartment, boxes everywhere. Looking back at old photos, I don't know how we slept or did anything. Then we were renting our space but didn't have it yet, we started buying things, so we were walking around or crawling over equipment. We would have to take everything out, then bring it back in. I guess that's just the natural progression of a company, but I still can't believe how much we've overcome in the past year, and how much it's grown, where we now have our own facility, and everything has its place. I take that for granted some days, because it was so crazy when we first started.
The biggest challenge though has been changing consumer behaviour. We're really influenced by the Starbucks culture, or this American mindset where everything is fast-paced, with these big, sugary drinks. So changing the minds of cafe owners, to get them to understand people do value this, and want this experience, and will wait an extra minute for something real. And for our customers at home, teaching them that tea time could be me time, and to take five minutes out of your day to prepare a proper cup of chai and enjoy it is very healthy for you. It's better than just a quick tea on the go. So that continues to be a big challenge, because we still get feedback that says it just takes a bit too long to make our chai. It's a constant battle!
B: This culture of instant gratification is insidious! These are some of the challenges, but could you talk about some of the rewards, some of the most memorable experiences?
R: You can have the highest of highs as a small business owner, and those really low lows. For us it's been about taking each win and celebrating it along the way. Our first cafe that carried Chaiwala, just walking in and seeing our jar, and it being served, and hearing the feedback -- that's an amazing win at that stage. Even to this day when we're out sampling, and I have someone come up to me and say they drink our chai every day at such and such cafe, and I get to meet them face to face, and hear how much they love it -- you just can't take any of that for granted.
Hitting 100 cafes selling Chaiwala was a massive highlight for us last year. We just started going to bigger consumer shows, seeing a lot of interest. I can't pinpoint an exact highlight, but I think it's so important to enjoy each little win along the way because that's what keeps you going as a small business owner.
B: Great words of advice! Just one more question before we sign off: what is your favourite way to drink Chaiwala Chai?
R: Love that question! I drink it all the time. Normally I start my day with a black chai, just with hot water. I find the spices and fresh ginger really invigorating and energizing. Mid-afternoon, I drink it as a latte, a soy milk chai latte, without fail. It's my little treat in the afternoon! But Chaiwala is all about finding how it works well for you, and taking the time to enjoy it.
B: Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us, Rebecca!