After a number of years working as a marketing strategy manager for a large global tech company, Paawan Kothari was no longer feeling challenged. Days filled with meetings, conference calls and presentations were leaving her bored and burnt out.
A confirmed foodie like many San Franciscans, in 2009 she noticed that a number of food cart vendors had started to gather on the weekends in her Mission neighborhood to sell homemade foods at various locations. For the fun of it, she decided she would make some chai at home and join them. So she put a trailer on her bicycle and rode it to the park to see if she could sell her chai from The Chai Cart.
“I didn’t put much thought into it except it was just something I thought it would be fun to do on weekends,” Paawan said.
Although Paawan had been disappointed in the chai available in the U.S., she had no idea that many other people also were looking for a better chai.
“I was surprised as to how much people really wanted a good chai, and everyone kept saying the same thing over and over again, that it was so hard to find and they really appreciated that I was doing this,” she said.
The reaction she got led her to think it might be something she could turn into a sustainable business. After a number of months of selling chai, she left her marketing job to make and sell chai.
Paawan initially decided on chai because it was “easy to make,” she said. Having grown up in India, chai seemed like a natural thing to offer as street food and it was something simple that she could do. Then she started experimenting in the kitchen to come up with different flavors. When she hit upon recipes she liked, she would take them out to test with customers.
According to Paawan, in India, “chai” is actually just tea. What we call “chai” here in the U.S. are actually chai lattes (tea with milk), but chai can come in many different flavors. In fact, Paawan says that in India most families have their own recipe for chai, and it may not be the spiced chai, or masala chai, that we typically associate with chai. Her family recipe, for instance, is a ginger chai made of fresh ginger and tea.
Since she began selling chai in 2009, Paawan has expanded her business to include three carts that are stationed at three separate locations in the Financial District Monday through Friday. She recently started cart sales on Saturdays on Valencia Street in the Mission, as well. At the Chai Carts, she typically serves three or four different kinds of chai everyday, including the traditional masala (spiced) chai, a rose chai that includes rosewater in the morning, soy chai using soy milk instead of regular milk, ginger chai in the afternoons, and often a malt chai that includes malt powder. Paawan often makes seasonal flavors including a mint chai and a pumpkin chai.
She also has a line of tea blends and chai concentrates that she sells at a number of retail locations throughout the Bay Area including numerous Whole Foods, Bi-Rite, New Leaf, Rainbow Grocery and Staff of Life in Santa Cruz and wholesale to some corporate customers such as Google. Her retail products grew out of not having a permit for her cart when she started the business—where she was able to serve was limited, so she came up with a way that customers could buy her chai to serve at home.
“They seemed to love the chai that I was making and that led me to make the product so that people could take it home and make it themselves,” she said.
In addition, Paawan features delivery services for events or for corporate offices. Because she has both a retail product and a she makes a chai concentrate that is premixed with milk for the carts, she has two separate kitchen spaces that she rents from other businesses. Every morning and afternoon, she pre-mixes the chai and milk fresh to serve at the carts.
She hopes to expand her retail sales at additional locations throughout Northern California and would also like to set up carts in additional locations such as the South Bay.
Making a move from tech to food has had a learning curve, Paawan says, but having an MBA has helped her with the business side, and she’s actively sought advice from others in the food industry about how to navigate the new industry, she said.
“I try to talk to anyone and everyone that I can talk to. It also helps in clearing your own thinking, it helps in many different ways…It’s comforting to hear from other business owners that they’ve also gone through the same pain points as you,” she said. “It’s a process of growing, and most small business owners have gone through similar things as you, so sometimes it helps to talk and realize you’re not the only one who has problems to overcome.”
According to Paawan, one of the things that sets her chai apart is that she offers a less sugary option from what’s currently on the market.
“I thought I had an amazing product, and I looked at what was available on the market and all the chai that was available was really, really sweet. I could never drink such sweet chai myself, so I knew people were looking for something else and nothing was available for them to buy it. I would only lightly sweeten the chai and that was the way I was selling it, and people would tell me that they don’t drink chai because it was too sugary or they just didn’t like what was available, so I knew there was a demand for a good chai,” she said.
What drew you to food?
I guess living here in San Francisco…the culture of the city is such that people are really passionate about their food and what they eat and I kind of was, as a consumer, particular about how my food was made, where my food was coming from and tried to seek out foods that were artisan quality. I think living here, every time I meet with people food is just something that people are interested in and everybody loves to talk about, and I was also one of them.
The only reason I picked that was because it was easy to make for me. It was only later that I realized that it seemed easy for me to make, but it seemed people really appreciated it and thought it was something special. But for me at that point I just thought, ‘oh, it’s chai. I know how to make chai, and it’s easy, so I’ll make chai.’
The recipe is actually mine that I developed when I started doing The Chai Cart. The masala chai is a recipe that I have that has six different spices in it, and everybody in India has their own recipe of making chai. So I had to develop a recipe that worked. [The recipe] is not something I grew up with.
I grew up in India, so I loved making chai, that’s the first thing I learned to make in the kitchen was to make chai. I think that’s the first thing every mom teaches their daughter because then she can have someone make her chai for her. So it’s the first thing I learned. Growing up, and now the way my parents have their tea, we just have chai with fresh ginger in it, so that’s the chai that I grew up drinking. So when I started the cart, I realized that people wanted a spicy chai, they were very used to drinking the masala chai because that was what was available in the U.S. and was introduced as chai to people in the U.S., so I had to create a recipe for masala chai that I liked, and I experimented with the spices and came up with something that I thought was really well-balanced.
The masala chai, like I said, was because customers were looking for it. I wanted to give them a spicy chai. But then the ones that I would try that were available on the market were either too peppery or too much ginger or too much cloves or too much cinnamon. I couldn’t find something that I personally liked, so…I knew all the spices that would go into it, so I just started, and I just kind of started blending my own spices and then I found a recipe that I thought worked really well on my palate, and I was like ‘oh, this is amazing,” so that’s how I came up with the recipe for the masala chai.
The rose chai, that was [because] I bought a few different flavors, I had an orange blossom, a rosewater, I just bought a few different things to experiment with and when I first tried the rose chai, I just kind of fell in love with it from the first sip. Some flavors worked, some flavors didn’t work, I was just experimenting, but the rose I just knew it, I just knew from the first sip that I’d stumbled upon something that was amazing.
Then I really like a black tea and mint combination, so I did a mint chai, but it didn’t really sell that well at the cart so I don’t do it that often now. I just didn’t seem to do well even though I liked it, so you know I just experiment. I like something, I try it out. Some flavors work and some don’t work. I tried a lemongrass chai, that also didn’t seem to work as well. Rose chai, I liked it personally and it seems to have hit a spot with many customers. That worked with the customers, so that’s why we do that every day now.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve gotten in building the business and what advice would you have for others?
Actually,[ laughs] now looking back I would have to say the best piece of advice I got was from the owner of Vik’s Chaat House who told me not to get into it. I guess he explained to me—because he knows my background—so he explained to me that food, from the outside everyone thinks food sounds like something everyone kind of is drawn to, but being in it, he knew that it was going to really difficult. In fact, if somebody came to me, I’d probably give them the same advice he gave me, is to not get into it. But if someone’s really passionate, they’re going to ignore your advice anyway and do it. I realize three years later, that that was probably the best advice I got.
I think starting any business is difficult. I think the difficulty that comes with the food-related business is that it requires a lot of physical work, especially if you’re used to having a desk job, it’s a big transition to be in this kind of a world where there’s lots of small things that can go wrong. This was a big transition for me. I didn’t train to be a chef, I didn’t train to run this, so a lot of it was just learning but that also made it more enjoyable for me at least. I enjoy being in the kitchen, I’m in the kitchen every single day, I actually enjoy the process of making the chai. Just working in the kitchen, I enjoy the process, it works for me but it may not work for everyone. [In this business] you have low profit margins, so financially if you’re building a business it might take time, it may take longer than you think to make the business financially sustainable, so that is something that someone who enters the food business needs to be prepared for. And you need to make sure you have enough income from other sources or enough savings that will help you get through the growing stage of the business. It can take three years until you can actually see profits from the business, sometimes it takes up to seven years to make the business. It’s particularly true for retail/wholesale food businesses. It’s a lot easier to know with restaurants/food trucks/carts whether it will work or not within a few months.
I think that is something that people probably should think hard about is how you make a food business profitable and the amount of time that it takes is a lot more than other businesses.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced thus far?
I think biggest challenge that I’m facing right now is scaling. Scaling the production of the product, just scaling everything. Because all of our products are hand-crafted so being able to scale in a way that will preserve the quality is probably my biggest challenge. Until last year at least in my kind of business, when you’re doing product, creating product for retail, the kitchen space that you may use is probably not as much, but the storage space you need to buy – your’e buying bottles and packaging and so many other things – that you really need a lot of storage space…I think if you’re growing and you need more space, finding the right space can sometimes be hard. Through networking you are able to find [things], but for me that was the biggest challenge is trying to figure out how to grow, and in order to grow how do I find resources I need, how do I fit into that? Because I was new to this industry, I had to figure that out and not owning my own space kind of became a challenge because I had to do more research than others, so finding something that worked for me was my biggest challenge.
What’s the best thing about what you’re doing for a living?
The best thing, I think, is just the love you get from your customers. It’s like when I meet customers or even some of them email me or my Facebook page or my Twitter account, I don’t think a week goes by without hearing how much people love the chai or love the product or something like that, and that’s one thing that also keeps me good. If ever I feel like I can’t do this anymore, somehow I think the universe knows. I’ll get an email or someone will Tweet about it and it just reenergizes me and it’s like ‘OK this is challenge, I need to get over it, I need to move forward.’ It helps me in making me move forward.
I actually only make what I like, if I didn’t like it, I probably wouldn’t sell it.
It really depends on my mood. Every morning I have a cup of the masala chai because it’s cold and that really helps to warm you up. In the afternoon, I like the ginger chai because it’s something I grew up drinking and for me that’s very comforting, the ginger chai. The rose is really special; I like it, it’s a nice elegant flavored chai. I don’t have it everyday, but every time I have it, it just reminds me how much I love it. Those are the three main ones. The malt, it’s a little bit sweeter, a little bit richer, so I like it as a special treat. Like sometimes I have the malt if I want to give myself a special treat for something – that’s a special treat.
Are there other local food artisans that you admire and why?
It’s really hard to pick one, so I am going to pick a store that curates some of the best artisan products – Bi Rite Market.
If you had to choose your last meal, what would it be?
My last meal would definitely be a home-cooked meal, preferably my mom’s cooking. She’s a really good cook so everything she makes is really wonderful. She only cooks Indian food, but it would be hard for me to pick one of my favorite dishes, but it would definitely be a home-cooked Indian meal.
Favorite Bay Area food/resto/chef?
San Francisco has so many great restaurants, and I haven’t tried them all. My most memorable meal in the past six months was at Range.
The Chai Cart
Photos courtesy of Paawan Kothari, The Chai Cart.