Inspired by their school holidays in Kolkata, brothers Ani and Ayan Sanyal have opened the Kolkata Chai Co in New York City, with the aim to take authentic desi chai to a global level.
For Ayan and Ani Sanyal, two brothers now in their thirties, the start of school holidays in Massachusetts meant their favourite time of the year — two months with their extended family in their hometown of Kolkata.
This time spent in the Indian city, they say, held a different kind of magic altogether.
“We often joked about how the street wallahs of Kolkata possessed almost magical skills,” Ani tells The Better India. “We were almost certain that these vendors had special sauces and spices that they told no one about.”
“From eating bhel puri in newspaper cones to visiting the same chai stalls that our mother would frequent during her college years, we developed a deep respect for the tradition and personal nature of food,” Ayan notes.
So naturally, when it was time to go back, they felt nostalgic.
Among the many things they missed when they returned to their life in the US, says Ani, the most significant was chai. “Authentic Indian tea was difficult to find on the streets of America, with cafes there being known for serving westernised versions,” he says.
This got the brothers thinking.
Since the teas of America did not satisfy their cravings for chai, why not build a brand that did just this? This thought was the genesis of Kolkata Chai Co, a venture in New York that is making Americans fall in love with the brew of desi chai.
Ask the Sanyal brothers why chai is such an integral part of their lives and their response is quick — “Isn’t it for everyone?”
‘Ek cup chai’ on the streets of New York
Recounting how the seeds for the venture were planted, Ani says he and his brother grew up as first-generation Indian Americans after their parents left Kolkata in 1987 to come to Massachusetts.
“Our concept of home was ever-shifting,” he explains. “One side of our life was listening to hip hop, eating pizza and begging our parents for a pair of Vans sneakers, while the other, smaller part, was the family time we would have in Kolkata every year.”
It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that brothers almost lived a different life for these couple of months every year. They agree.
“Spending time with our extended family meant we were able to see the world through an entirely different lens and learned the importance of family, faith and privilege at a very young age,” says Ayan, adding that they were often left fascinated with this side of life.
Even with numerous visits to the paras (neighbourhoods) of Kolkata on a shoestring budget, they say no trip was complete without a visit to their favourite chai stall ‘Maharanis’.
“The satisfaction we got from smashing the clay bhar cups into the ground after finishing our chai was unparalleled,” laughs Ani. “There was a lore to street food. It was democratising, generational, and spoke to all socio-economic levels.”
As the story goes, after one such trip in 2017, as the brothers returned to America, they did so with an idea — How do we extend the authenticity, respect and tradition behind a cup of masala chai to the western world?
And that’s how Kolkata Chai Co was born.
Brewing a venture
“For the first 18 months after we had the idea, we would do pop-up shops and farmers markets in NYC, and got a great response. Following this success and getting a sense that people loved desi chai, we opened the NYC cafe to a line of 700 people in 2019,” says Ayan.
Ani adds that they started with a simple thought — making South Asian culture and cuisine accessible to everyone through chai and Indian street food.
But the initial days of setting up saw many challenges, the biggest being “a lack of capital and resources”.
“NYC is an extremely competitive, expensive environment to run a food business in and we jumped into it without knowing how difficult it could be. Barely six months into our cafe operation, the pandemic shut all the restaurants in the city down and we were forced to close,” says Ani.
In order to keep the business afloat, they knew they would have to think out of the box.
“From delivering chai in our car across NYC to shipping our chai mix across the country, we spent every waking minute trying to stabilise our business. These lessons taught us to be sharp operators and we’ve been able to sustainably grow ever since,” adds Ayan.
‘We wanted to correctly represent our culture.’
Guests who come in through the doors of Kolkata Chai Co are treated to different menus depending upon the season.
“In the summertime, we serve our infamous iced oat milk chai, masala limcas and oat milk soft serve, whereas in the fall it’s all about the traditional masala chai. We see people come from all across the country — and sometimes the world — to experience this slice of Kolkata in NYC.”
In the cacophony of westernised versions of chai lattes, has it been tough to introduce New York City to the traditional desi chai?
The brothers disagree.
“Lucky for us, New York City is a place like none other and people are open to educating their own palettes. I won’t deny there’s still a lot of miseducation around what ‘chai’ really is and what its real flavour profile is supposed to be,” says Ani.
But, he adds, through social media posts and viral content, they have begun to reframe people’s idea of chai and how much they have to gain by experiencing it in its authentic form.
Today, there are 15 people part of Kolkata Chai Co and along with drinks, the menu also includes Indian street food – which encompasses Kolkata-style egg rolls, samosas, chaats and more.
“We also feature seasonal menus for the fall and summer, where you can catch our ‘Ma’s Ginger Chai’, a take on the simple, yet highly effective ginger tea our mother made for us growing up. We also serve mint lemonade, which is a spin on a childhood classic we grew up with in Kolkata,” says Ani.
For those who’d like to order online, their chai mixes are currently shipped to the US and Canada.
Ask the brothers if America is loving the desi chai, they say the numbers speak for themselves.
“We serve thousands of customers a month at our cafe and thousands more through our e-commerce website. Our goal is to become the household name for chai in the western world and eventually across the globe,” says Ani.
Edited by Divya Sethu