Melbourne’s Original Chai Wallas

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    For Apoorv and Gauri, the idea of selling chai was never an easy proposition. But today the two young entrepreneurs behind the project Original Chai Stall at Vic Market are successfully carrying forward the chai story – from India to Melbourne. By Indira Laisram

    Sitting in their Parkville home, architects Apoorv and Gauri kept up with a ritual they always followed back home in India, sipping piping hot chai every morning. They enjoyed the view of the little park in front of their home and conversations sometimes ran into the absurd. One such morning they were ruing the fact that there was no place in Melbourne that served the ‘karak’ chai (the flavoured Indian version of tea), which is so inherently a part of Indian culture. It was a moment that gave birth to an idea. They wanted to introduce chai to Melbourne.
    As the days passed, the idea began to reinforce itself along with their growing disillusionment with chai in Melbourne. Every café they visited served powdery sweet syrup with honey and cinnamon powder and other concoctions. “If you order a chai, it is not chai. It’s all very exotic but not traditionally Indian,” says Gaur.
    The year was 2007. Gauri who hails from the ancient city of Haridwar and Apoorv from Indore, were both students of Masters in Landscape Architecture at the University of Melbourne. Being students and limited in resources it was an idea whose time clearly hadn’t come. But about five-six years later when they finished with their courses and started working they were ready to take forward the chai story to Melburnians.
    “We decided to make the traditional tea which is chai patti (tea leaves) and chai masala. The chai masala is something we did ourselves. After studying the recipe back home we formulated our own mixture which is a bit of elaichi (cardamom) and all the other spices to make our signature blend,” says Gauri. With that, they were ready to begin small.
    Having named their venture Original Chai Stall, the duo who turned 31 this year, chose their first project at a beautiful location in Doncaster Hill on a significant day, May 12, 2012. It was Gauri’s birthday and Apoorv asked her a few times if she was willing to take it up. “He said the last thing any girl would want to do on her birthday is setting up a chai stall and picking cups,” laughs Gauri. But she was determined to make this first baby step.
    However luck would have it otherwise. The weather played havoc to their plans. Winds and rains brought the tent down, the burners kept going off and nothing worked. “It was a complete failure and the first experience was a disaster,” recalls Gauri.
    But not one to be disheartened, the couple was determined to give their ambition another shot. So when the next opportunity came up at Fitzroy Town Hall for a festival organised by Multicultural Arts Victoria, they were well equipped. Nervous from their first experience, this time they also asked all their friends and professors from the university to come and give them moral support.
    “We started making chai at 12 pm when the event started and stopped only at about 4 pm when the event wrapped up. We kept making chai after chai and sold about 300 cups. The time just flew and we didn’t realise the time,” says Gauri.
    Despite the rains, people queued up with their umbrellas. . The aroma of the masala chai was wafting in the air. “They were paying the money upfront and I was telling them that we were going slow because it was also windy but they were willing to pay the money and wait for as long as 30 minutes. It was amazing as nobody wanted to go away.”
    The friends who had come to the event were equally amazed by their display and how the duo was drawing most of the crowd. “Nobody believed it was our first stall. We sold chai and samosas and everybody went berserk. That was the day we told each other we are not stopping here, that we have to go further. That was a beautiful experience and memorable,” says Gauri. It would also be their start to a long lasting relationship with Multicultural Arts Victoria who continued to send them invitations to set up a stall in all their festivals. And it gave them the confidence to dream big.
    The other big event they did was at the Queen’s Cliff annual music festival, a three-day event featuring popular Australian and international artists and drawing humongous crowd. Apoorv’s parents who were visiting then were apprehensive asking them, “People are drinking alcohol and you are doing tea?” Although nerve wracking, they pulled off another successful project. “People who had travelled to India and appreciated the chai respected us so much, sending us messages and texts. Some would have three cups every day. For three days we made chai after chai and we collaborated with someone who made dosas. So it worked out really well,” says Gauri.
    After this, there was virtually no looking back. They started putting up stalls at different markets and events, even catering events in their bid to showcase the chai story to Australia.
    They also ventured into catering for events and wedding. One memorable wedding, recalls Gauri was of a Bangladeshi woman marrying someone from the United States and whose love story began at Kolkata, India’s tea junction. The bride to be wanted to introduce a unique feature of West Bengal to her special wedding and wanted tea in kullads or clay cups, a ubiquitous feature of tea drinking in Bengal and India. After a bit of research, she discovered Apoorv and Gauri and their Original Chai Stall.
    “We were pleased. We wanted to contribute as much as we could because it was such a lovely and special event and it also meant a lot to us more than the idea of making money out of it,” says Gauri. With a bit of R&D, Apoorv sought the traditional clay cups found in Bengal as the perfect wedding present. And so 200 guests at the wedding had tea in clay cups. “They were so emotional; it’s the best thing that we have ever done. All these things have given us so much energy. Everybody appreciates the clay cup so much that now it is a part of our stall. We are also recycling them as they are too nice to be smashed.”
    Life was proving to be busier for Apoorv and Gauri and they reached a stage where they wanted a base for everybody to come and have their chai. While they were going places, often they were met with the question: where can we buy your chai? And so they started scouting for places.
    With their eye on the Victoria Market in the heart of the city, they started filing in applications for this coveted spot in the heart of the city. But every application was rejected without any reasons cited. The concept of selling chai never seemed harder, says Gauri, who thinks looking for jobs was comparatively easier.
    “It’s a place where thousands of applications are filed. To stand out we had to make plan drawings, elevations, views etc., and since both of us are architect designers we could do it well. We could visualise so we did all our sketches and we knew that if we presented this well it should work. But we still got rejected. We then thought we will keep pursuing and do what we can but for a while left it at that. Finally after about a year somebody gave us a call, they picked up the same application which was sitting with them and asked us to meet them. We were both thrilled that we got an opportunity for an interview,” says Gauri.
    “I have never felt so much nervousness for an interview to be a chaiwalli in Melbourne,” laughs Gauri. “It was a much harder interview than my regular job interviews. They were three people who asked us everything, some difficult questions too for which you don’t have the answers. They wanted to firstly know our backgrounds, why we were interested in doing this, how dedicated we were, how the design would work, where we would store our products, and a lot of logistical questions, a lot on health and safety aspects. After we got through the preliminary round, they asked us to submit some more drawings. When we presented a plan, they asked if we had a better idea to present ourselves. So we worked on Plan A and Plan B as they were not going to get impressed with just one,” says Gauri.
    Taking a day off from work, both of them redesigned a few things. When they presented a beautifully Rajasthani painted Indian cart, depicting the Indian theme of a chaiwalla selling his ware against the background of a blue coloured wall tapestry to reflect a typical Indian street chai shop, they managed to make an impact. “So it was just not the product but the overall get up they were looking at.”
    Finally in September last year, Original Chai Stall found its home at the busy Victoria Market. They introduced their packet chai and chai masala which they grind and pack in their registered kitchen. “We said let’s stick to the roots and we can’t go wrong there – the taste of chai made on the spot and the joys derived out it is irreplaceable. Each cup we brew is made with enormous, smothering amounts of nostalgic love for our childhood mornings, life in India and the love of Chai. A sweet mix of black tea leaves, ginger, cardamom, milk and more. On full disclosure: we follow our mother’s recipe to the brink, you know, as old school as it gets,” is what they proudly declare.
    Since having set up shop there, Original Chai Stall has introduced a few innovations to create the ambience. They had a live music of sitar and tabla which attracted a lot of interest. This has come in for praise by the authorities who monitor everything. “The standards of Victoria Market is very high, you can’t do anything silly and get away,” says Gauri.
    Another interesting feature is introducing a fun element in the form of the carom board, where patrons can sit play and sip chai alongside. “The whole idea is to make it a chai ka adda, (chai haunt), a scene transported from India. So you can see the cart and all the little street elements which capture the essence of India and makes you feel nostalgic. People stop here for a while and play. The carom is a star now. Everybody feels we don’t play with this anymore as new gadgets have and plastics have taken over. It is a good stopping point for people.”
    Within a few months of opening their stall, they broke even. On an average, about 200 cups chai are sold daily. “The USP of this chai is it is made on the spot, is fresh and is a healthy beverage. Chai is a healthy alternative as compared to coffee which is high in caffeine,” says Gauri.
    With the Original Chai Stall at Victoria Market, the duo is leveraging to serve people from all over. The hard work has paid off and ensured compliments from all quarters. “Some people say, ‘thank you so much u made my week, I feel I am in India’, some say ‘I feel I have travelled in a train in India’, yet some others says ‘after two years I am getting my fresh chai’,” reveals Gauri.
    “We were a bit nervous about feedback from local Australians who are so used to their cup of coffee but we were in for pleasant surprise when they said they respected us for doing the real thing. Majority of our customers are Australian surprisingly. Of course I can see a lot of Indians who smell the aroma and come and then stop by to have chai but Australians are loving it. We have 80 per cent regulars who come every weekend. Some of the people who come to have chai own cafes and asked is chai really like this? People taking chai to Australian cafes,” says Gauri.

    From Monday to Friday, Apoorv and Gauri work full time as architects and every weekend they operate their chai stall. “It’s definitely more work than what a coffee person does. We have to wash the dishes etc. but it’s something we want to put out there and it gives us so much happiness when people come in and say this is amazing,” says Gauri, adding, “My mother tells me that if you enjoy your work so much you don’t get tired, which is the truth I realise. We have not felt the stress so far. There is a long road ahead and we have to go all the way.”
    It has been two years since the duo started putting their idea into practice. The experiences have been rewarding. Recently, they served tea to the Indian cricket team at the Langham. The men in blue liked it so much that they ordered again. Their reward was two VIP tickets for a match.
    By deciding to plug the chai gap in Melbourne’s beverage scene, Apoorv and Gauri have shown that ideas can turn to reality and with great success. And that is no slip between the cup and the lip!

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