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Meet Your Neighbor: Kolkata Chai Co.

Just a 14 minute cab ride from our Chelsea Market location, is a chai shop that’s challenging the traditional relationship the West has had with South Asian drinks and eats. Kolkata Chai Co. is from the minds of brothers, Ayan and Ani Sanyal, and rooted in their experience as first generation Indian Americans. They grew up drinking chai that didn’t have “tea” tagged onto the end of its name and spent holidays visiting family in Kolkata, India, eating food from street vendors run by the same families for generations. 

Ayan and Ani created Kolkata Chai Co. to share the depth of tradition and authenticity they experienced around chai with New Yorkers. And they live out their mission with excellence. Besides serving carefully sourced chai, they also offer traditional street food like bhel puri (puffed rice, vegetables, and tamarind sauce) and samosas to snack on, as well. 

We wanted to feature them, not just because they’re changing the chai game but because they go the extra mile to support their neighbors and other local businesses. They launched a panel series on the six month anniversary of their opening called Why Not Us? that shares stories of diaspora leaders and creatives. They also regularly partner with local businesses, like Desi Galli and Mikey Likes It, to support their neighborhood. Neighbors supporting neighbors is something we can always get behind.

Learn more about Kolkata Chai Co. and the brothers that founded it:

Kolkata Chai Co. Co-founders and brothers, Ayan and Ani Sanyal.

Can you tell us about the mission behind Kolkata Chai Co.?

“Kolkata Chai started with a simple idea: How do we extend the authenticity, respect, and tradition behind a cup of masala chai outside of South Asia.

Chai has been repeatedly exploited and appropriated in the U.S. Our focus is to make sure our culture and traditions are represented accurately and honestly.”

What do so many people get wrong with chai?

“Chai was introduced to the Western world by corporations and people who weren’t from South Asian descent. 

The story of chai being this cinnamony-sweet, exotic, frothy elixir is inaccurate and a cheap representation of the culture and region where it comes from. Chai has a dynamic flavor profile and unique healing properties that have never been communicated properly with the public.” 

Do you have specific farms where you source your chai?

“We source all of our black tea directly from the Assam region of India. Our tea is processed using the ‘CTC’ method which stands for ‘crush, tear, curl’ which results in the tea forming into small, hard pellets. We work with local businesses whenever possible, including getting our milk from local dairy farmers and partnering with local restaurants such as Desi Galli and Mikey Likes It to enhance our menu offerings.”

Whether that's sharing childhood experiences with street vendors in Kolkata or hosting panels of diaspora creators, human experience is just as much of a part of Kolkata Chai Co. as the chai itself. Why is it important to tell these stories?

“Great question. As minority creatives, we never saw our stories being told in popular culture or the media growing up. This can make you feel invisible and unappreciated. With Kolkata Chai Co., we saw it as our responsibility to create a platform that could share and amplify certain stories, particularly those from the first-generation immigrant perspective. There’s such richness in those narratives, whether you are from India, Nigeria, or Guyana, and we wanted people to be proud of their roots and heritage by showing how proud we are of ours.” 

What are some things you’ve been doing to weather Covid-19?

“Covid hit during our sixth month of being in business. We barely had our feet set in the restaurant business and were dealing with the repercussions from a slow winter. Despite this, we made the decision to close the cafe to prioritize the safety of our customers and staff in mid-March and pivoted to e-commerce and delivery only. 

Covid-19 forced our hand in a lot of ways but it wasn’t all bad. Our e-commerce business ended up launching at the ‘perfect’ time -- we captured people’s imaginations with our DIY Chai Kits while everyone was quarantined and in their homes. E-commerce ended up stabilizing our business and allowed us to survive the toughest months of the pandemic with no PPP loans or government relief.” 

Can you tell us a story about how a neighborhood has positively impacted you?

“The East Village is one of the few neighborhoods in NYC that still feels authentic and independent. The small business community of restaurants, thrift shops, community spaces is really robust and something we cherish. One of the beacons in the community, Mikey Cole of “Mikey Likes It” has been like a big brother to us, helping us navigate through all the craziness that comes with the food industry. We recently collaborated with him for a summer menu which features a delicious lineup of vanilla chai ice cream, ‘chaffogato’ (triple bean vanilla ice cream drenched in masala chai), and a black tea float.”

If you’re ever in the Lower East Side, or visiting us in Chelsea Market, drop by 199 East 3rd Street, New York, NY, 10009, and give Kolkata Chai Co. a “Howdy” for us!