For as long as he can remember, Amuleek Singh Bijral begins his day with chai in a ‘beer mug’ every morning. A happy chai drinker, Amuleek’s love for tea drove him to set-up India’s first tea retail chain, Chai Point. On Tea Day, TBI speaks to Amuleek about his journey with Chai Point, a brand that sells over 1.5 lakh cups of tea every day.
Q: Chai Point seems to be symbolic to your love of chai. When did the idea germinate?
Chai has always been a big part of my life. Way back in the days when I was studying MBA at Harvard Business School, I was certain that if I were to become an entrepreneur, I’d venture into the consumer brands segment. But, what the brand offering would be wasn’t something I had narrowed on. I returned to India and began working with a technology company. The thought of setting up my own venture hadn’t left me. At my work place, I’d often observe how everyone was particular about their tea breaks. It was fascinating to watch groups of people leaving office premises to have chai at a shanty tea shop. It was a daily routine and I realised that most of the fancy large tech parks didn’t have tea joints. That’s how I decided to look into the world of chai. Consequently, I resigned as the country manager of the company I was with at that time, and Chai Point’s first pilot micro hub was set up in April 2010 in Bengaluru.
Q: How did your family and friends react when you told them about wanting to become a chai walah?
From the age of 10, I recall being the chai walah for the family. Women folk of the house would love the tea I brewed and would insist I make chai for them, while they chatted away. Punjabi families have a very typical sense of humour. So, when I broke the news to them, my mother said, “If you wanted to sell tea, why did you waste money studying MBA at Harvard. You should have simply assisted our helper Mohan Lal for a few years, by now you would have had the required experience.” We all laughed that evening. My friends have known me to be persistent about my ideas. My family and friends were certain I wasn’t just jumping into it. I’d given it some serious thought. After all, the tea market in India is astounding with an estimated 911 million kilograms of chai consumed every year and valued at Rs 33,000 crore. And, there was not a single organised player in the market offering chai to people who love consuming tea until Chai Point came along.
Q: Today, you have over 100 Chai Points across eight Indian cities. Did you imagine Chai Point to become India’s largest tea chain?
We were ambitious, still are! Our vision for Chai Point, right from the start was to be an omni channel company, reaching out to customers across mediums, online, offline or mobile. The 100 outlets mark is no indication of our maturity, we have millions of more people to cater too.
Q: What were some of the initial challenges?
The history of tea in India is perhaps 4,000 years old. So, the idea of selling chai isn’t original. But, there was certainly a gap. There were the likes of Café Coffee Days, Baristas, all selling coffee, whereas tea is the beverage India loves and consumers more than coffee. In a way, the tea consumers were neglected. With Chai Point, we hoped to bridge that gap. Chai Point wasn’t a novel concept in that sense but our aim was to take chai to a massive level. The challenge we faced initially was more to do with the mindset of the junior employees working with us. They had apprehensions about being labeled as chai walahs. We spent substantial resources in employee engagement programmes to instill confidence in them. Over the years, we’ve people working for us who’ve come from Starbucks, Café Coffee Day, among other such brands at the junior level, while some of our senior management employees have worked with the likes of PepsiCo and Oberoi. We are a strong team of about 825 people, today.
Q: We’ve all grown up sipping chai endlessly at local tapris/telas, did you fear competing with their informal and nostalgic ambiance?
Chai Point is targeted towards working professionals who are comfortable with technology and love the age-old experience of a cup of chai. Given that every working professional in India relies on nondescript roadside stalls with questionable water supply and quality of ingredients for their daily fix of tea, with Chai Point we decided to modernise the tea drinking experience. We had to ensure that the outlet design was modern, pricing was real and the quality superior, all this driven by technology. For instance, all our stores are PayTM enabled for the convenience of our customers. Our corporate dispensers are IoT enabled, which allows us to preempt a problem and resolve it in time. Our tagline reads, “India Runs On Chai”, and we want to be accessible to anyone who wants to drink chai.
Q: Chai Point’s chai-on-call is a major contributor to the brand’s popularity. What went into the success of this offering?
Most people among us consume tea at least 2-3 time a day, it’s a habit. We love chai so much that we at times even compromise on quality. At Chai Point our aim is to refine the offering – the experience of having chai. Good quality and warm chai, just when you want it. Chai-on-call brought with it a path-breaking, core innovation – the heat-retaining disposable flask. The flask retains heat for 45-60 minutes. A large chunk of our consumers may have never entered out retail outlet but their transactions with us are high.
Each time we set up a new outlet, a large percent of our investment goes in to technology. A robust delivery system backed by technology is the key to our offering. As a result, we didn’t suffer due to demonetization. Our online and wallet transactions increased during those days. Initially, we’d have busy weekdays but now we are witnessing chai being ordered by customers at home on weekends as well.
Q: Tell us about Chai Point’s Clean Earth philosophy.
We believe in being responsible towards how we contribute to waste management and the relative environment in which we operate. Customers tend to reward brands that are sensitive towards the environment. Chai Point’s delivery fleet consists of over 60 all-electric scooters, as part of an initiative to save fuel and contribute positively to keeping air pollution levels low.
That apart, we are working on a bio-degradable material for cups. One of the low-cost measures that has had a high impact, is installing a tap insert on every water tap across Chai Point outlets. This has reduced the consumption of water by 40%. We have an internal tracking mechanism that helps us keep a tab on how sensitive we have grown with each quarter of the financial year.
Q: Do you dream of serving chai beyond India?
Worldwide, tea is the second most consumed beverage after water (beer and coffee follow tea). We are working towards strengthening our brand in India. Chai Point is a brand India loves so, why not take it overseas. But we still have some time for that.
Q: Share with us a fond memory you have over chai.
In the early days of Chai Point, customers would walk up to us, just to say “thank you”. That simple appreciation with a satisfactory smile on their face is what I’ve cherished over many cups of chai.
You can order your chai at: chaipoint.com
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