The first time I tasted chai tea was when I was in college, and I was instantly hooked. A friend of mine took fresh spices and slowly brewed the delicious tea on the stove in our kitchen dorm one chilly Sunday morning. We sat and sipped tea, chatting for the next hour as we happily took a study break from Statistics 101.
After moving out to San Francisco, I had the hardest time finding authentic tasting chai, which I couldn’t stop craving. I tried powders (the taste was way off), tea bags (not even close), and chai from local coffee shops (closer, but still not the real deal). Then one day I stumbled across The Chai Cart and my dreams of tasting homemade chai came true!
I had to learn more about who was behind The Chai Cart and am happy to share with you exactly that! The founder, Paawan Kothari, has an inspiring story leaving her career in Silicon Valley to start her own business. I am thrilled she followed her heart because she makes the best chai I’ve ever tasted. My mouth is watering just thinking about it! Paawan is also graciously offering one lucky Untemplater reader a free bottle of her delicious Rose Chai Brew, so be sure to check out the giveaway instructions after reading the interview.
Sydney: When did you first start The Chai Cart?
Paawan: I started it very informally in 2009, when I used to bike around with chai in a trailer and set up in parks around my neighborhood.
Sydney: What was your inspiration?
Paawan: In the summer of 2009, an underground street food movement started gaining traction in the Mission District of San Francisco. It started when two brothers sold thai curry and crème brulee from make-shift carts. As more and more food vendors joined this movement to sell their homemade specialty foods, I decided to sell chai. I grew up in India where chai was part of my every day life and chai carts on the streets are commonplace. It just seemed like San Francisco needed a chai cart.
Sydney: Do you still have the original bicycle trailer you used when you first started?
Paawan: My bicycle, which was customized to hitch to the cart, got stolen in 2010. It was really sad.
Sydney: When did you start thinking you wanted to leave your job at IBM?
Paawan: In 2009, I was already feeling quite burnt out of corporate life and was looking into what I wanted to do next. I started The Chai Cart as a side project. People loved the chai. I started getting more and more followers on Twitter and Facebook. It was so fun I started doing it every weekend. I decided to quit my job at the end of 2009.
Sydney: Did you have any set goals you wanted to complete before leaving your office job? How did that work out?
Paawan: No, I had no set goals. I didn’t even know how I would make this into a career. I just knew what I was doing was not what I wanted to do. In hindsight, quitting my job may have been a little rushed. But I’ve always believed in following my heart, even when its wrong, ‘coz you get to learn a lot more by making mistakes.
Sydney: Were people supportive of your decision in the beginning? How did that affect you?
Paawan: My parents liked the idea of the chai cart but were really surprised when I told them I was going to quit my job. But eventually they supported me, b’coz they knew I was working twice as hard, even though I wasn’t making any money. Most of my friends in SF were (and still are) very supportive.
Sydney: Roughly how many varieties of chai are there?
Paawan: We always have Masala Chai (both with regular and soy milk options) at the cart. The Rose chai and Ginger chai are also a staple – we service it hot when its cold outside and iced when its hot. We sometimes do Malt chai and a Mint chai. In stores, there are currently only two types – Masala Chai Brew and the Rose Chai Brew.
Sydney: What’s your favorite product and your most popular seller?
Paawan: The Masala is definitely the most popular. It’s a classic. As for my favorite, it’s a toss up between the Rose and the Ginger.
Sydney: Was it difficult to get your products in Whole Foods stores?
Paawan: Mine is a very unique experience. The Whole Foods opportunity just fell on me and pulled me to follow a route I had not anticipated.
When I met with the buyer at the regional Whole Foods office, I took 5-6 products to show him. He immediately picked the Chai Brews. At the time, I had no idea how I was going to produce it. Luckily, it took over 6 months to complete the paper work to become a vendor. It gave me time to find the resources I needed and find contacts within the food industry who advised me.
I got lucky as I happened to have a product that stands out and speaks for itself. It’s an unsweetened chai concentrate, its local and its handcrafted. Plus, its authentic and tastes great!
Sydney: Do you have any aspirations for further expansion?
Paawan: Yes, I have very high aspirations (after all, I did go to business school). While it sounds very lofty, at the heart of it, I want to change the perception of chai in America – its not a spiced tea sugary syrup. Within San Francisco, I want to eventually have a few carts all around the city. I would love to see chai carts all over the US.
Sydney: Are you able to get all your ingredients locally? Do you travel to India for any special spices?
Paawan: I love sourcing local ingredients when possible. But neither tea nor the spices I use are grown in CA (or the US). I am very particular about the quality of tea and spices I use. For every ingredient, I have a specific distributor. We do use Clover organic milk, which is based in Northern California.
Sydney: What advice do you have for someone who wants to start their own business?
Paawan: Its not easy and its not for everyone. You need tremendous amount of dedication, resilience and passion. A business is not a hobby. It requires a lot of sacrifices, its not always fun and can add a lot of stress to your life. You have to really want it and really believe in yourself. And be willing to accept failure as a positive outcome.
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Photo Credit: Michelle Edmunds Photography