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"What Are We Doing?" Vol. 1 - Surviving The First 60 Days of Kolkata Chai Co

It’s been a little over 2 months since we opened the doors at Kolkata Chai Co, the first South Asian owned chai cafe in NYC. When 700+ people showed up on Opening Night, Ayan and I weren’t that surprised, but at the same time we didn’t understand the magnitude of what we had built until the weekend after the opening. That weekend, we saw a non-stop stream of chai lovers from the moment we opened at noon until our closing bell at 8pm with not even a minute of downtime in between.

Photo: Shah Miraz

Though this sounds like a dream come true on the surface, behind the scenes we were barely treading water. How do you manage your food supplies when the demand is exceeding your expectations by 3x? How can you train staff when you’ve barely had time to learn yourself? How do you know exactly how many avocados to buy to last you through the weekend? 

These were all questions that we had to find answers to. Fast. Our first few weeks consisted of doing whatever necessary to maintain the highest customer experience. That meant ignoring food costs and buying things at retail if it came down to it. One lovely weekend, our oat milk delivery decided to never show up and I spent 45 minutes running through every Gristedes on the East Side to see who carried Oatly. The answer is: The one on FDR and 26th. Our cafe is on 3rd and B. That was a fun little trip.

All this to say, Ayan and I decided to shut the cafe down over Thanksgiving week to regroup, refocus and refine our operation heading into 2020. Here are excerpts from a recorded conversation we had over the weekend about our first 60-ish days in business. 

Ani: I’m not sure if shutting the cafe down for this entire week was the best idea but I know you need to catch your breath a bit. 

Ayan: I feel you. I had one of our regulars admonish me like “Your chai is like a drug man, you can’t just close for a week!” That made me chuckle, but it’s a testament to the loyalty we’ve built. The food business is kind of unforgiving that way. People expect you to be open, all the time, always on time. Whether or not your milk delivery comes, whether or not an employee is running late because they had a family emergency -- it doesn’t matter. These last two months have made me infinitely accommodating to every food service establishment worker, whether it’s fast food or a five star restaurant - every day, we deal with impossible odds in this business. 

Ani: It’s crazy how we went from having no food & beverage experience 8 weeks ago to having a relatively well oiled operation in the biggest city in the world. Do you ever think about it like that? Remember during the first weekend when you sent me to Aapna Bazar at 8am to grab green chilis and I had to google what they looked like? 

Ayan: Haha! Let’s just say I’m glad we have our specializations, *insert eye roll*. I think about it. I think about the bar that we set for ourselves. We’ve always held ourselves to the highest of standards, in whatever work we do. Our parents ingrained that in early on, right? We gotta work twice as hard, twice as fast, just to move this sh*t one inch forward. But as the infamous Cam’ron says, “if you nice, you nice. Don’t matter what you do.” Failure was never an option. It’s still not.

Ani: Can you isolate one moment, a micro moment, since we opened which has made all this feel worth it?

Ayan: Honestly, opening night was such a blur for me I don’t really remember it as a highlight. I don’t think I’ve had any particular moment, I just love what we’re doing, every second of the way. I love people’s reactions when they first step in here, when they first sip the chai. What about you? 

Ani: I have a couple. Naturally, having Ma and Baba being there on opening night. There was another time these two young women were sitting in the front, having this long, intense convo and switching back between Bangla and English the whole time, and I realized that we had created a space where that was completely acceptable, encouraged and normal.

Ani: What’s one thing we could’ve done better since opening? 

Ayan: The food menu. Getting feedback on that really killed me. We tried so hard to take street food items and put our twist on it, but our space at the end of the day was really limiting. It worked so well when we had our private tastings! But people had expectations for like these hot steaming meals on our toasts, and we didn’t really have it like that. Combine that with the weekend rush and all your predictions go flying out the window. I’m glad we learned quickly and I deeply apologize for anyone who had a mediocre experience. 

Ani: Talking about food, do you want to share what we’ve been testing and developing for the past few weeks? 

Ayan: Yes! Hot meals for winter. We’re working on a really simple Dal Bhat - rice and lentils. I want our food to be delicious and nostalgic. What our mom used to make, you now? Dal bhat is a staple. It’s nourishing. It’s comfort food. A lot of Kolkata street food is actually based on day laborers who come from the villages for work in the city every day and Dal Bhat is found on every street corner. 

Just going off for a second, I feel like a lot of the Indian food in NYC is focused on making stuff unnecessarily trendy, like adding avocado or tuna to bhel puri, but I really want to respect the ingredients and respect the street culture. I’m realizing it’s harder than I thought to do that and still be accommodating to American or South Asian-American palettes and expectations. A part of our story is that we’re unapologetic and this is going to be part of that. The dish is going to be perfect and curated and yes, it’s going to be a little pricey. But if you understand what we’re trying to do, you’ll support our vision.

Ani: That’s fair. One thing we’ve been extremely blessed with is our team. From front of house staff to our prep cooks, we have a phenomenal core of young people stepping up and making things happen. What do you think your best quality a leader is? What are you working on?

Ayan: Man. I’ve really understood the value of teamwork these last two months. Remember before we found our prep team that I was staying till 2am to clean and getting there at 8am to prep for our noon opening? Everyday? It was utterly debilitating and exhausting. You can’t do it all yourself though and I’m so grateful that we have people who take up the mantle, represent the brand and vision and get things done better than I could’ve done. I’ve learned so much from our staff and I’m hoping that they look upon this vocation as an experience that will shape who they are, the way my mentors/managers shaped me. 

I think my best quality is to lead by example and never be precious about doing the work. I can do everything (front of house, back of house, prep, etc) and I want all our team members to be multifaceted in the same way. That way, no one falls cus everyone is each other’s crutches.

I’m still working on listening to our employees. Like actually listening. People are shy with feedback and won’t always tell you how they feel, so you really have to listen carefully. If someone thinks there’s a better way to do something and you miss it cus you weren’t listening - that’s unforgivable. I’m keeping my ears peeled! What about you?

Ani: My best quality is my ability to lead by demonstration. I have no problem mopping the floors because that reminds everyone else to take pride in their work. I’m still working on being a more effective communicator and clearly outlining my expectations from any given task. 

Ayan: Haha, we said the same thing. Work like a soldier so they don’t recognize the general.

Ani: Bet that. The press coverage has been kinda crazy so far, huh? I mean, we architected it to be that way but what’s been your favorite press piece so far?

Ayan: Yikes. The Eater piece that we ran with for opening was great but also a learning experience for me. I think I could’ve phrased things a little more carefully. We really came at the whole chai vs. “white people” narrative hard, but maybe it’s good that shots were fired. It was a good lesson that press will take the most controversial thing you say and run with it. You?

Ani: I really like the CNBC one. That was a really dope piece of storytelling. Eater was huge, obviously. Even AMNY was crazy. I took like 24 copies of the mag out of the kiosk near our office, ha. 

Ani: Maybe I shouldn’t talk about this about this, but we recently went to view a potential second location for Kolkata Chai. It seems like the right opportunity at the wrong time. What are you thinking?

Ayan: No comment.

Ani: Fair enough. Let’s do this again sometime.