The Marathon Continues: Why We're Opening Another Kolkata Chai
I distinctly remember this one conversation I had with my brother before signing the lease on our first cafe in 2019. The topic was how much our lives would change now that we were tied to a brick and mortar establishment in New York City. We joked about losing an already declining social life, how hard it would be to plan vacations and who would work the morning shift on the weekends. Ah, the naivety.
The reality is, opening a restaurant changes more than just your social life and vacation plans — it fundamentally changes who you are. The realities of operating, managing a staff, navigating finances and the such becomes all you are. Our ill-timed decision to open six months before a global pandemic also created a level of turbulence that we could’ve never predicted.
After limping out of the pandemic in early 2022, my brother and I were mentally and emotionally broken. We had operated through the the previous two years a blind sense of faith — forgoing a salary and any other conventional means of a balanced life to see our vision through. The vision being to showcase chai and regional Indian street food, through an elevated brand experience and a vibrant community. The good news was, we had made it to the other side. The bad news was, it came at a cost.
Simply put, we were overworked, broke and mentally fatigued. One downside of being from a hard working first generation immigrant family is that you often repeat the behaviors of your parents without recognizing it. In this case, we emulated the relentless toil that we seen from our parents, without pausing to think about its larger effects on us. Our physical health declined. Our relationships with family and romantic partners strained. The inspired, optimistic nature that we had come into the game with had been gnawed down to the bone. In the middle of all that, we tragically lost our beloved grandfather back in India.
We started therapy individually to try and make some sense of the wreckage. Healing from all of that took time. A lot of it. It also took an unexpected trip back to our homeland to find our sense of purpose again.
Earlier this year, we flew back to Kolkata to commemorate the death anniversary of our grandfather, or “Dadu” as we affectionately called him. During that trip, while confronting the grief around his passing, I started to explore the truths of my ancestry and heritage. I dug deep into our family history, pouring over old photos with my grandmother, talking to my elders and truly understanding my grandfather’s impact on his community.
Through this exploration, I came to the conclusion that no matter what you do, where you live, or how different you think you are, you are a product of your lineage, traditions and those that came before you. The only choice you have is whether you want to embrace and share those stories, or to minimize their impact in your life. To honor my grandfather’s impact in my life meant to amplify the stories of my culture and heritage even louder than before.
Today, we proud to announce the opening of our second cafe in NYC — this time in Nolita. We’ve made the decision to honor our ancestry and traditions by putting a flag down on an area surrounded by the most well recognized restaurants in the world. This is a decision to elevate regional Indian cuisine, particularly the food found on the streets of Kolkata — a forgotten city in India’s meteoric 21st century rise. Street food is inextricably connected to our upbringing and the forming of our worldview. We spent summers in Kolkata visiting the same bhel puri stalls that my grandfather frequented as a young adult, mesmerized by how vendors armed with the simplest tools and ingredients could make something so delicious. Kolkata Chai is a vehicle to carry on these traditions to create connections for those looking to explore their own history.
But here’s the other reality — this isn’t a venture backed cultural experiment.* This is do or die. Either we get this right, or we’re screwed. This is like Jay-Z dropping Reasonable Doubt via his own distribution after not getting signed to a major label. It’s like Allen Iverson winning the MVP despite being the smallest player on the court. Its like when Marlo Stanfield took over the best territory in West Baltimore and the competition had no choice but to give him his respect.
Our naivety in 2019 made the opening of our first cafe special in its own way. Going viral, getting nods from pop culture icons and talking about chai on Good Morning America was cool. But this time it’s different. There’s a different pain and perspective on this round.
This is about conviction and an unwavering sense of belief in your purpose and what you were meant to do on earth. It’s about creating something where people feel seen — often for the first time in their entire lives. It’s where kids travel from across the world just to taste your chai and tell you how it feels for them to be finally accepted. It’s where people feel like their struggle to find identity is not exclusive to them, but rather a shared experience felt by many.
That’s the promise of Kolkata Chai. I hope you’ll join us to celebrate opening night next week. - Ani
RSVP here: https://kolkatachai.co/pages/cafe-rsvp
*We have never raised venture capital, but did raise a round from angel investors in 2021