What makes upscale chai dhabas so popular and will they be sustainable in the long-run?
Despite the love and high consumption of tea in Pakistan, for a long time there were not many tea places which catered to families and the middle-class in Karachi. The numerous chai khokas scattered across the city are mostly frequented by blue-collar workers or young men, seldom, if ever, accompanied by families. The hygiene and quality control exercised at these khokas is questionable, especially when it comes to the raw ingredients used, seating area and utensils.
This was the gap which Aized Suharwardy decided to tap into when he established Chai Wala – the first of the many ‘upscale’ outdoor tea dhabas in Karachi – in November 2014.
Suharwardy, who had returned from Melbourne after completing his studies, says he was inspired by the roadside cafés in Australia and wanted to implement something similar in Karachi.
“There were numerous cafés in Karachi where people went to have a cup of coffee and unwind, but there weren’t any family-friendly places with an outdoor setting that specialised in tea; a place where young and old, men and women go for a cup of tea and a paratha, socialise and feel safe and comfortable.”
After an initial six months of brisk business, Chai Wala shifted to a bigger place in the nearby ‘chota’ Bukhari Commercial Area – and later opened a second branch in Clifton. Following suit, Chai Shai, Chotu Chaiwala and Lollywood Café opened in the vicinity in 2015 and 2016. The trend then spread to other parts of the city as well, with Café Prado, Chai Deewari and Sangat (among others) opening in Gulshan and Gulistan-e-Jauhar. Three years down the road, it can safely be said that upscale chai dhabas are not a fad, but signal an established consumer trend.
What’s on the plate?
Like regular khokas, tea and parathas are the main menu items these dhabas offer. However, two factors make them stand out. One, the variety on offer and two, the quality of the ingredients. Apart from the standard doodh patti, karak and elaichi chai, the tea menu includes options such as Cadbury, zafrani, Kashmiri, masala and cinnamon tea.
According to Shahnila Awan, Co-Founder, Chai Shai, increased exposure has made Pakistanis more experimental and attracted towards novelty. As far as formulating the tea recipes is concerned, Awan admits that it’s rather ad-hoc – family recipes, researching online, trial-and-error with ingredients’ proportions, testing out new flavours on family and acquaintances.
A sizeable chunk of revenue comes from the range of parathas offered. Apart from regular desi varieties (zeera, anda, aaloo and qeema paratha), ‘gourmet’ parathas have been introduced and include BBQ cheese, Mexican pepperoni pizza and Nutella.
Suharwardy again attributes his travel experiences and curiosity in trying out new combinations, and being a “daring foodie” which resulted in these ‘gourmet’ or fusion parathas.
####Like regular khokas, tea and parathas are the main menu items these dhabas offer. However, two factors make them stand out. One, the variety on offer and two, the quality of the ingredients. Apart from the standard doodh patti, karak and elaichi chai, the tea menu includes options such as Cadbury, zafrani, Kashmiri, masala and cinnamon tea.
“I used to eat calzones in Melbourne which had BBQ sauce, chicken, feta cheese and spring onion. I thought why not try out the same on a paratha and see how it turns out – the result was one of our best-selling items!”
Suharwardy and Awan worked closely with their cooks when conceiving new paratha recipes.
“Pakistan lacks quality culinary institutes that teach food sciences, hone the art (and science) of creating new recipes and most importantly, experiment with desi cuisine – there is so much potential to create fusion with our spices and recipes,” Suharwardy says.
The tea and parathas at these dhabas come at a premium. A cup of tea ranges from Rs 80 to 200 (for ‘exotic’ flavours like zafrani chai). A Nutella paratha or a ‘hummus’ paratha costs on average Rs 200, and parathas such as BBQ chicken and ‘The Mexican’ will set customers back Rs 300. Even the desi range is pricey – a plain paratha costs Rs 100, and qeema and aaloo parathas are between Rs 180-200. In comparison, at a regular khoka, a plain paratha costs around Rs 25 to 35, while aaloo or qeema paratha don’t cost more than Rs 60.
Adeel Mirza, Co-Founder, Café Prado, thinks the experience justifies the price.
“Our production costs are much higher. We use top-quality products, ensure hygiene, provide a secure and trendy ambience, and the rent we pay is much higher.”
From a customer perspective, price does not seem to be an issue; rather the concerns are security issues due to outdoor seating.
According to a young woman who is a frequent visitor to Chai Wala and Chai Shai, the family-friendly environment and variety of food served is a definite puller.
“I go with my friends and family at least twice a month and I love their menu – especially the pizza and Nutella paratha! Why spend Rs 400 for a cup of coffee when I can get tea and a delicious paratha under Rs 500 – it’s a full meal and good value for money.”
According to Suharwardy, in three years, Chai Wala has grown seven-fold (it currently has two branches), and the average production volume has gone up eight times. Furthermore, he has established partnerships with raw material providers (the company gets its own blend of tea leaves from a tea exporter) and employs 50-plus people, compared to the four when he started out.
Chai Shai has a similar growth rate, reporting a year-on-year growth of at least 20%. Awan now wants to establish structured employee growth plans and provide them with training, yearly bonuses, medical and other benefits. Café Prado, which opened six months ago, is still in the initial phase of establishing a name; however, Mirza is hopeful the café will become the go-to hangout spot for people in the Gulshan and Jauhar area.
Although these ventures into tea and parathas are proving their business viability, a few areas need to be explored further for their long-term sustainability. A clear opportunity is looking at avenues such as catering and setting up kiosks/pop-up stalls at events such as fairs and weddings. These can be additional sources of revenue as well as a means of brand exposure. Another area is to establish partnerships with suppliers of milk, ice, tea and flour, along with franchising – both within and across cities. So, exciting times are ahead for these tea and paratha entrepreneurs.