Ani Sanyal isn’t a typical restaurant owner. “I look at myself as the quintessential first-generation hustler rewriting the narrative of what our parents told us and what was forced upon us,” he says. Ani didn’t originally plan to be in the food and beverage space, but his work in other industries led him to Kolkata Chai Co., the New York City cafe and e-commerce site he founded with his brother, Ayan.
We sat down with Ani to learn about the cafe’s inception, how they’re navigating pandemic hardships as a new small business, and why they embrace digital offerings like Vouchers to keep their audience engaged.
Kolkata Chai Co. is in part an homage to Ani and Ayan’s parents, who emigrated from Kolkata, India, to the United States. “On my parents’ first date, my mom spilled a cup of tea in my dad’s lap because she was so nervous,” Ani recalls. The business idea came in 2018, when Ayan fell in love with masala chai—a mixture of black tea, spices, and milk—on a trip to India. After testing out his chai blend on family and friends, the brothers opened a farmers’ market stall, which planted the seed for a larger business.
While Ayan was refining his chai recipe, Ani was running Green Room Creative, an agency he still leads today. After helping other small businesses, he and Ayan decided to take the ideas that worked and apply them to their own concept.
They spent a year and a half continuing to test the product, developing the brand, and creating a chai community through pop-ups, collaborations, and social media. In 2019, they took a leap and signed an East Village lease. After a slew of press, including a Good Morning America feature, Kolkata Chai Co. opened in September to a crowd of over 750 people.
A pandemic pivot
Six months after a fairy-tale opening, the pandemic forced the Sanyal brothers to shut their doors. Like many other small businesses, their survival depended on staying top of mind when nobody could leave their houses.
They quickly spun up a DIY chai kit people could brew at home. “It blew up overnight,” Ani remembers. “I think it was the combination of quarantine and people wanting to try new things. It was like the market was primed for it, and our community was so into how they could support us. We were doing more revenue in e-commerce than when the cafe was open.”
After the success of their pivot, Ani and Kolkata Chai Co.were looking for a way to say thank you to the community that had kept them afloat. When Uber for Business offered them a chance to give vouchers, they embraced the opportunity to give back to their customers.
Vouchers are a flexible way businesses can cover the cost of rides or meals for employees, clients, or, in this case, pandemic customers. Ani says: “The value it provided was a chance to come take a ride and see us. You’re looking at young people in New York. An Uber voucher is like a Willy Wonka golden ticket.”
Ani and his team used Vouchers to benefit customers online and in person. After a quick setup process, the business used their unique link to distribute vouchers to patrons who had spent a certain amount on their website or at the cafe. “People absolutely loved it,” Ani recalls. “Like I said, that Uber voucher is gold. It gave us more cultural cachet.”
The future of chai
In the waning days of the pandemic, Kolkata Chai Co. continues to look for ways to grow the business and provide value to its community, many of whom are children of immigrants like them. If you’re in New York City, you can now order the cafe’s chai drinks and Indian street food snacks for delivery right to your doorstep with Uber Eats. Ani says: “We consider ourselves the leaders of the pack in terms of [chai] education. We’ve established ourselves locally but want to expand. It’s just one step at a time.”
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