It’s time to go all in. Here’s why we’re opening a Kolkata Chai cafe in NYC.
They say “if it doesn’t scare you, you’re not dreaming big enough.” Well, I’m shitting my pants right now and am hoping there’s a cute motivational quote to help for that.
It’s the first week of August and Ayan (my brother and business partner) and I are 4 weeks behind on our construction timeline for the build out of the Kolkata Chai cafe in NYC. We just learned our contractor built an entire wall where the architectural plans didn’t call for one, but more on him later.
When Ayan and I launched Kolkata Chai Co in the winter of 2018, our goal was simple: make it possible to get an authentic cup of masala chai in New York City. Not one that’s so sweet it makes your head hurt and not one that’s an afterthought for an overpriced Indian restaurant and tastes like cardboard. A real cup. One that would transport us back to childhood summers in Kolkata where we would sip it quickly just to unlock the satisfaction of smashing the bhar cups onto the sidewalk after. We had no plans of building a brand, launching pop-up cafes around NYC, sipping oatmilk chai with Questlove or catering for the biggest tech companies in the world. We just wanted to make a cup that respected the traditions and flavors from where our family comes from.
For many first generation immigrants, we’re constantly torn between our two homes: the place we were raised in and the place our families come from. For Ayan and I, it was the city of Kolkata. The frenetic, chaotic, beautiful, heartbreaking, spirited city of Kolkata. It’s where we first discovered the unconditional love of our extended family. It’s where we realized the level of privilege that exists every time we turned on the tap to drink water in America. It’s where we witnessed the power of food, adda and spice. Where we learned what it meant to be Bengali, Indian and American.
All that to say, we didn’t start this journey with the intention of opening a cafe. We just wanted something real. After 18 months of menu testings, pop up events, catering and more, we could no longer deny what we knew deep inside. Our product was connecting with people because we were representing the ingredients, flavors and purpose in a respectful way.
Here’s where the cafe story gets tricky though. Ayan and I come from very modest backgrounds. Our parents struggled and scrapped to provide a life for us and we accepted the reality of our situation early on. There would never be any “Daddy’s money” for us to fall back on. Over the past few years, we hustled to build our agency business and aggressively saved to invest in new ideas and products. We are investing our own capital and money raised from our investors (*massive airhorn for y’all!*) to open this cafe. We’ve maxed out 3 credit cards, emptied 2 savings accounts and are currently on hold with Amex to see if they will increase our credit limit.* If it works, we look like geniuses. If it fails, we’re f*cked. We’re putting it all on the line to make sure the story of our city, our food and our people gets told the right way.
Now, back to our contractor. Once he finishes painting and installing the equipment, we can tell you exactly when we’ll be open. For now, let’s say the first week of September 2019. We’ll share the details for our opening night soon.
Our hope is that our story connects with you and the people in your community. We encourage you to share, show up, sip, do adda and help us promote the values for what Kolkata Chai is built on — Ownership of not only your business but your story, and a deep respect for the traditions and culture from where you come from. We can’t wait to see you.
Ani Sanyal, co-owner of Kolkata Chai Co
*Amex said no, btw.