Tell us a little bit about what you do. How did One Stripe Chai start?
So it’s a really random story. I used to live in New York City before Portland, and I was an IT consultant and I traveled a lot with work and I will say it was a fun, “glamorous”, and good job, but I didn’t feel happy and fulfilled at any level. I worked from home a lot when I was on a project that didn’t require travel for 6 months, so that’s when I kind of found interest in the specialty coffee world. In NYC, you can’t work from your actual home because your home is probably the size of a closet (i.e. my room was a 9x7 at one point)! So you end up working from coffee shops a lot, and that’s how I got exposed to the whole concept of specialty coffee and how it’s so different from Starbucks and Dunkin' Donuts. I also was fascinated by how my favorite iced mocha cost 7 bucks - like what was happening in the coffee supply chain to justify this cost?! And I really just began liking these spaces that brought all kinds of people together because the most eclectic types of things would happen at coffee shops. Once a guy was sitting next to me at a coffee shop and I swear he went on like 3 dates in the span of the few hours I was working there! I mean coffee shops are where you witness people reuniting, job interviews, business deals, first dates… last dates, just so many exchanges of ideas. They’re kind of a safe space for all of these things and I loved that.
At one point my sister took me to a really awesome boutique coffee shop in Atlanta that had opened in her neighborhood. It was something right out of New York City or LA - high end boutique and craft coffee shop, all in one. The owner happened to be there and it was just so amazing - I couldn’t believe it was in Atlanta, my hometown - we picked her brain for like an hour. Turns out the owner was my age, and the whole thing got me really inspired and intrigued. I was kind of jealous that I was stressed out at a job I didn’t care about, when other people were doing really amazing and creative things that they loved. The first thing I said to my sister when we left was, “I need to quit my job and be doing something I love.” Total cliche statement, but a few months later I did quit my job. I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I knew I wasn’t going to find another job in the industry, which is what we’re often reinforced to do - you have to have something “lined up” before leaving a job. I’d always wanted to take a weekend trip to Portland - I’d never been there. I didn’t know anyone there, but I figured I’d go for a weekend and explore. So I was looking things up and a weekend or a week didn’t feel enough so I decided perhaps it made sense to spend the summer here. I had never worked in the foodservice industry and I didn’t know the first thing about how to operate an espresso machine, so I figured this would be the best place to learn how far my coffee love could go.
I ended up finding a barista training program (taborspace.org), where I was learning the day-to-day process of a coffee shop. My coffee trainer was working on finding a new solution for chai at that time because he didn’t like anything on the market. Making traditional chai is really difficult for coffee shops because most of them don’t have stove tops, so they end up having to make or buy a concentrate of chai so they can quickly make a chai latte using the steam wand on their espresso machine. I grew up drinking chai, so this was an “a-ha” moment for me - no wonder the chai at some of the best coffee shops tasted like nothing… it’s not really made the same way I would make it at home - it’s all still chai, but just made differently. I’d had so many bad chais at coffee shops known for their coffee, so I started helping him with his recipe to see if we could create something bold and tasty. Eventually for me, I knew this was an industry I was interested in, and the lack of good chai was a gap or a problem that I could relate to. And I have a bit of a… I wouldn’t say “passion” because I think that’s a really intense word, but this is a problem I care about because I would always go to coffee shops and think their coffee was great and then I would try their chai and just think it was gross or bland! Why did people think this is chai? It was kind of sad - some of that stuff just tastes like warm milk. Anyways, we got the recipe to a place where people were really loving it and my partner thought we could turn it into a business because we were sure other coffee managers were also in the same rut, and that’s how it started. I just completely fell into it.
You mention this on your website, but can you tell us a little bit about your relationship with chai? Why chai over coffee or some other drink?
Well I’m Indian and I grew up drinking chai. I feel like coffee is a pretty American thing. I’ve heard so many stories from people who still remember their first cup of coffee, and for me I remember my first cup of chai. I don’t think my parents have ever really even had coffee, but they drink chai every day! You know how if you drink coffee every day and then you skip a day- you get a coffee headache? They get a chai headache. They can’t function without it. When I was little, I wasn’t allowed to have chai because it’s a hot beverage and there’s caffeine in it - it’s just an “adult thing”, it’s not something that kids drink. I vividly remember when I first got to drink chai I was given just a tiny bit to sip on. Because it’s a hot beverage, kids usually pour some in a saucer and let it cool down and then slurp it from there. So I remember that from when I was a kid. My early chai memories are endless, but this one with the saucer is one of the earliest. In college, I discovered coffee and was all about the frappuccinos and extra whipped cream drinks. When I was 22, I had some chai at my older cousin’s house and that kind of brought it back into my life - I had kind of forgotten about chai! He ended up giving me a jar of tea his mom had brought from India and I started making chai at home after that. And that’s how I got back into it. So it’s not something I’ve been obsessed with my whole life, but it’s something that’s always been there. And then two years ago, ironically right before I quit my job, my family took a trip to India. It had been 18 years for me and I was dying to go since I was much older now. We ended up taking a short trip to Darjeeling, which is up in the northeast, and we went to a bunch of tea farms and I had the best chai ever on that trip. We would drink it constantly, 2 or 3 ounces at a time - nobody drinks a 16 ounce anything by the way - that’s a super American thing. Anyways, I think that trip helped a lot, because it was very recent and it was kind of like chai was re-introduced to me again in a more memorable way.
Were you always creatively inclined when you were younger? Or was it something you grew into as an adult?
I wouldn’t say I’m super creative, but as a kid, I was the one out of all my friends that was really into taking art classes. I didn’t do sports because I have asthma and had to take my inhaler everywhere; I was kind of that kid. But I would dance, and I would take art classes wherever I could. And I remember in 4th grade I was taking oil pastel classes and I would come home and I would teach my friend stuff I learned in class that day. In middle school, my post dinner routine was always running upstairs and working on my paintings. My dad would bring me these really nice acrylic paints and camel-hair brushes from India, I kind of had the whole setup in our study. My mom still has a lot of my paintings and they are pretty good! I took a lot of art in high school as well and was involved with NAHS until I graduated from high school. Since then I’ve tried to keep up with sketching and writing, but I rarely take the time out for it. I will say One Stripe takes a lot of creativity, though. For example, I had a meeting yesterday with our graphic designer because we want to make these new recipe tags. You have to be really creative in your approach and ask lots of questions - what do we want our customer to see? What’s going to be appealing? Does this justify the cost? And I find that really interesting - I love that part of the job. It’s not that much of the job, but I love that part of it.
What are you working on right now that you’re excited about? You mentioned making tags for your chai bottles. How is that coming along? Are there any other projects on the horizon?
So we want to make recipe tags. Because what we sell isn’t a drinkable chai as-is, it’s a concentrate. Since it’s a product that’s for coffee shops, and made for espresso machines with steam wands that are very powerful, it doesn’t taste exactly the same in your kitchen. So we want to provide some recipes for guidance. We’re making really cute visual tags that are simple and tell you how to make an iced chai and how to make a hot chai. But it’s a whole process because making tags is expensive and you have to wonder about so many things like whether you really need them and whether it’s a justified cost, are they going to fall off, are they going to bend. And honestly, are people just going to throw them away or are people going to look at them and actually use them? It’s a process.
Another thing we want to do is to educate the coffee shops that we work with. We’ve only done this once, but we’ve gone in and given a presentation to the staff of one of our shops and brought them all the ingredients so they can smell and see what we use and why we use it, see why we use a concentrate, etc. To be honest, some coffee shops don’t care about chai because everyone drinks coffee, so it’s just this “other thing” on their menu, so to go to coffee shops and ask what they’re serving for their chai and suggest something that they might like better is important. You have to get really creative with how you market as well because you don’t want to push things on people and you want to let the product speak for itself. So it’s kind of fun and validating for us when a coffee shop owner is hesitant to use our product, then tries it out for a couple days and calls back wanting to start a wholesale account. We’ve been rejected many many times too, but luckily never for taste. Usually, it’s a hassle to switch or the shop just can’t justify paying more if the chai they use has been selling well at their shop. But it feels really good when a coffee shop reaches out to us and we’ve never heard of them, and they say their barista drinks our chai all the time at some other coffee shop and the barista has been pressuring them to serve it. That’s happened with a few coffee shops. And then we’re just really thankful for the baristas. Because this product is for the baristas to use; they’re the ones that are going to be using it every day, we definitely want them to like it.
Do you do retail as well, or do you just do wholesale?
We just started selling our concentrate for retail! A couple months ago we successfully scaled our production up so we can produce a lot more now. We needed to do that first so if a grocery store wanted to put us on their shelves we would able to produce enough to meet their needs. That process was a lot of work. It’s not just a matter of multiplying your recipe by 10 - there’s a lot of chemistry and food science involved. We had a custom beer brewer built for us that we ended up having to modify a lot. I didn’t add much to that, but that’s where my business partner’s creativity comes in because he went to school for architecture so he’s able to look at a machine and know that we need to go to a sheet metal place and get this kind of filter fabricated and I don’t know what he’s talking about half the time but I’m really glad he has an understanding for that! He’s very creatively inclined in that sense - he’ll easily visualize how to make things. So now that we’re able to produce more, our concentrate is shelf stable, and we have smaller bottles, we can put our online shop together and start to get some retail business going. We’ve had so many requests from people all over the country, so it’s a great feeling to finally (soon) be able to point people to a shop or our online shop so they can place orders!
Did you come up with the spices yourself?
Joshua, my business partner, was managing the coffee shop I was working at and when I started working there I asked what they did for chai. And he was like, “Good question. I hate everything on the market right now.” He’d already ordered everything that he could find and he didn’t like any of it - it didn’t taste good and it was too sweet, so he started working on his own recipe, started doing his own concentrate, and he had done a lot of research. So I tried it and it was really good! I started helping him with that and I had a lot of late-night epiphanies like, “Oh my God, we need more of this, or we need to tone this flavor down.” But that’s how I knew it was something I cared about! Because I was thinking about it even when I shouldn’t be thinking about anything. So then I figured maybe this is something that I do really care about and I’m excited about. The original recipe was based off of a bunch of research Joshua had done, and we modified it a lot. It took us a few months, but luckily the coffee shop we were working at was selling the concentrate that we were making so we were able to test it out on people immediately. And as we saw that people really liked it, it became more and more clear that if people here really liked it, people in other coffee shops will probably like it too. It turned out to work! We have a decent amount of clients, and a lot of them are referrals - we didn’t really do a lot of marketing.
Was it difficult to get One Stripe Chai off the ground? What’s one memorable challenge you faced, and how did you overcome it?
It was a big one. So we started in November 2015, and it wasn’t that hard getting it off the ground to be honest, it was like a pretty low investment, and we paced it out. The place that I worked at had a barista training program there and Joshua had trained lots of baristas that moved on to different coffee shops so that was a great starting point because we could reach out to those baristas and ask if the owners of the coffee shop they worked at would be interested in our chai. So it was a good word-of-mouth way to get our name into the first few coffee shops - our first clients came straight from that. And then we did some door-to-door sales which I never want to do again. Instagram is the best sales tool for something like this. You can’t go door-to-door.
So I’d say our biggest challenge was after we went like a whole year and things were good and we were growing, that ice storm happened in December. That was brutal. We had somebody doing our deliveries and he was out of town for a week and his car broke down on his way to Montana so he didn’t have a car and couldn’t get another one. Luckily I had just started working at Squarespace two months before that, so I still had a pretty flexible schedule. So whenever I had later shifts, when everyone’s kind of waking up and rolling into work I’d already been around town delivering chai. So I was having to do deliveries and it was icy and my car got stuck in the snow one day. Coffee shops were closed because of the ice storm and we had no good way to deliver so we had no source of income for two weeks and we had expenses. I thought that was it, it was done. We were almost going to have no money and I didn’t know what to do. That was also right after we had bought this big brewer and it was SO expensive. And when we first got the brewer it didn’t even work! The company that made it really messed things up and they weren’t helping us out and we had to spend a lot of money and a lot of time modifying that machine so we just... It was tough, really tough, especially emotionally. It was really stressful, and we were running out of money, and we just didn’t know what to do. It felt out of our hands.
I knew we’d had no issues since we started, so it was very obvious this was our first hiccup and that it was bound to happen. It was just a shitty one and at a shitty time. And then we pulled out of it OK. I don’t think it was ever really a question of whether we would stop this thing, because we had a lot of clients so that was a very last resort option, but we did learn a lot. For example we might have rushed buying that machine. Maybe next time we should take our time, plan it out, and know that even though we're planning on doing things, more than likely it might not work out or it might take three months longer than we planned. Luckily we pulled out of it and started building ourselves back up again, but we’re still learning a lot about how to expand and get bigger and how we can pay for all that. You realize that every time you want to get bigger you have to put more money into it too. There’s no guidebook that tells you what to do, and when or how to do it.
Do you find it easy to create while working a full-time job? How do you strike that balance? Any plans to make One Stripe Chai your full-time gig?
Actually it’s funny because recently someone asked me how the chai thing was going and mentioned it was good to have a side hustle. And then they said, “Although I’m not really sure if this is your side hustle, or the chai is...” I think eventually I’d want to do One Stripe full-time. When I quit my job in New York I didn’t ever want to work for anybody again, but I told myself if I do ever work for anybody it would be for a company that I care about, and that I like. So it just worked out when I found out that Squarespace was here in Portland. I just think it’s the best full-time job I could have. It’s so flexible and it’s so easy to move things around, and schedule meetings in the morning before work if needed. It does make for very long days sometimes, but that’s a part of owning a start-up business - you have to do whatever it takes.
What would it look like if One Stripe were full-time? Is there an office space involved?
I don’t know! Right now I just do everything from home or from coffee shops. The thing is we still don’t have enough work to do for this to be full-time - we’re just not quite at capacity yet. But I think as we grow into retail spaces and have to start shipping chai and producing more it’s going to require more time out of both of us. I think eventually it’ll have to be an office, depending on if we move into our own production space. I have no idea, but that would be awesome. I would love to do that. I always look at people’s offices and I think about how I want my office to be like that! I want a bunch of Mac screens and a fancy espresso machine and art everywhere - I just want it to be very simple and artistic. But those things are so far away still, so I think for a while it’s just going to be a lot of working on my laptop, working from home. We’re not planning on hiring anybody full-time anytime soon, but if we do that that’ll be a whole other thing as well. I think it would also be cool to turn the venture into One Stripe bottling company or beverage company down the road. We have ideas for other drinks that we want to do. One thing that we just don’t have time to work on right now but has been on our minds is a ready-to-drink chai, and we also want to make a vegan version because our current concentrate has honey. A lot of people that are vegan are OK with that, but it wouldn’t hurt to do a true vegan version. So I’d say that's something that we really want to get out there soon.
How does being a creative person influence your business mindset? Do you find creative solutions to problems or are you more analytical with your decisions?
I think the good thing is that Joshua and I are a bit of both. Where he’s more creative I’m more logical, and when I’m thinking about the creative stuff he’s the opposite. I think we have a good balance and I think we’ve come up with a really good way of communicating ideas so that both of our thoughts are reflected in the decisions that we make. I think one thing that required creativity from both of us was actually picking our name and designing our logo. We designed it ourselves which was exciting. We really wanted something that was clean, and not too kitschy. Our aesthetic needed to fit the entire market, meaning the whole brand should work at fancy craft coffee shops and mom and pop shops alike.
What's the origin story of the name "One Stripe?"
So Joshua’s dad was in the Air Force, and when he was little his dad made him learn all of the ranks, and one of the things he learned is that when you get out of basic training you earn “one stripe”, so you’re kind of like this “one-striper.” So we were at the Tao of Tea on Belmont and it was the first time we met about turning this [idea] into something. We didn’t even have a name yet, and we figured we needed to come up with one. We immediately knew we didn’t want anything super Indian or yoga-ey or too hippie dippie. So as we were thinking of names, he happened to mention that when he was in college and he couldn’t come up with a name for a project he would always put it in a folder called “One Stripe.” And I asked what it meant and he told me the story and I loved it. So his concept with One Stripe was that once you have that one stripe, you now have all the tools you need to be really good at something. I loved it and immediately said I don’t want our name to be anything else - I just loved the whole meaning behind it. The story behind that name is always a fun one to share because it’s something everyone is wondering.
One Stripe Chai’s labels are simple and minimalistic. Would you describe that as your creative style/aesthetic?
I would say that if you walk into my apartment right now, you’d think I was pretty minimal. I don’t like clutter. I think Joshua and I are both like that. Clutter would make both of us anxious. There’s that one company that I won’t name that does soaps and their label is covered with text and oh my God that label gives me so much anxiety! It’s crazy that there are a few chai brands that use the same exact bottles as us, but their branding and aesthetic (and taste) is so different from ours that it doesn’t matter at all. For example, there’s a chai concentrate company in New York that uses the same amber glass bottles, but their branding is very shabby-chic kitchen-like, and ours isn’t like that. I mean even our Instagram - we don’t have a super cute aesthetic or anything, where everything has to be curated. That’s just not us. We don’t want anything like the super hipster branding that’s always the go-to. I just think that sometimes that’s too intimidating. I feel like there are a lot of coffee shops that are very intimidating to the average person. Customers walk in and they feel as if they don’t know enough about coffee to hang out there. As a customer you want to be comfortable going somewhere and not feel judged getting a cup of coffee. So we didn’t want to be that type of brand because if we go that way with branding then we have to only market to coffee shops where that branding will fit, and then we can’t be in any other kind of place because the branding wouldn’t match. So we knew we just wanted something in-between that was comfortable for everyone, and that would look good in a really high-end coffee shop but would also work in a Mom & Pop coffee shop.
What’s next for you creatively? Do you have any projects on the horizon?
There’s one project outside of One Stripe that I have in mind. So one ingredient that we use in One Stripe that sets us apart is something called jaggery, which is an unrefined palm sugar. It comes in a big clump and it’s kind of buttery. It tastes like candy. We use local honey too, but that can sometimes be a little too sweet, so we wanted there to be a good balance so we decided to cut it with the jaggery - it’s called Goor in Hindi, and a lot of people use it in desserts and in cooking in general. So anyways, I’ve always thought that nobody here in Portland really uses jaggery or knows what it is. And I also really love chocolate. I love dark chocolate, and I love Woodblock chocolate, and they have this one Madagascar chocolate bar that I love but their bars are $4.00 each for these tiny baby bars so it’s not a sustainable habit. At some point I was like well I live in fucking Portland - I should just make my own! So I was looking for raw cocoa from Madagascar and all the places I could find online didn’t ship to the U.S. but then I found a company that ships within the U.S. and it’s located in Eugene of course! So I ordered a pound of that, and I’ve never made chocolate before but I’m going to attempt to make some now. And I think maybe I’ll try to make it with jaggery and see how that tastes because there aren’t many companies that do that, and it could be interesting. I feel like if you want to do stuff like that, Portland is the place to do it. There are so many resources here. And it would be fun. I don’t know when I’d have time for that, but I love that I can just be like, “Hey this chocolate is too expensive… I’ll just make my own!”
Feature photo credit: Daniel Mueller. Check out his Instagram.
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