• TeaFit: Unsweetened Iced Tea and Herbal Goodness

    Jyoti Bharadwaj launched TeaFit in 2021, offering a range of unsweetened iced tea and herbal blends. She has since added unsweetened premixes to the portfolio. For India, a country with a large population suffering from diabetes, she says, unsweetened beverages were needed, and tea offered the perfect vehicle. More recently, Jyoti was featured on Shark Tank India, where celebrity entrepreneurs agreed to invest INRs 50,00,000 rupees (USD $60,000) in the brand. Jyoti talks about functional, condition-specific, and ready-to-drink tea and how her brand is helping tea shed its fussy image. 

    TeaFit founder Jyoti Bharadwaj
    Joyti Bharadwaj, TeaFit, Shark Tank
    Joyti Bharadwaj and family pitch TeaFit on the Shark Tank TV program

    Aravinda Anantharaman: Will you share the story of how TeaFit came to be?

    Jyoti Bharadwaj: I have had a rather longer route to entrepreneurship. I wasn’t born to be an entrepreneur, nor do I come from a family of business people. We are the typical service-class India that focuses on education, focuses on grades, and you become an engineer, get into consulting, and do MBA, so that’s the route I had for myself as well. So I am an engineer. And then, I did my MBA from the Indian School of Business. Somewhere in the middle, for a couple of years. I did work in a large IT company. But I think that taught me what I don’t enjoy or what I’m not cut out to do. And thankfully, I learned that fairly early in life. After that, I did my MBA and have been building startups. So after two successful startups, I was honestly beginning to get a bit bored. Liabilities were taken care of, I had paid off my huge education loan, and I had a nice house in Bombay. And that was pretty much it. I was taken care of in that sense. So that itch to do something meaningful beyond the next job, I think, was gnawing at me a little bit. And also, my kids were really young. I was not enjoying staying away from my young ones for so long every day. 

    I have traveled to Japan quite a few times. And I really enjoyed the unsweetened beverage space of Japan. And just the pride the Japanese folks have in traditional cuisines that somehow pick up or resonate from their traditional teas, herbs, and botanicals. And so for every Cola or sugary beverage, you will find in vending machines 20 different types of teas that are made from greens, from oolong tea to matcha, you name it. And I was blown away by the kind of selection there and the access people had to good products or products that are good for you.

    When I visited the beverage aisle here back home, there were just three broad categories: Cola, fruit-based/sugar-based beverages, and energy drinks, and somewhere in the middle is where you have to make a choice. The whole game is pinned on the idea the Indian consumer wants things sweet. When you look at the options, they are so limited that you can’t really blame the typical consumer for picking what they do.

    Aravinda: So, what is TeaFit all about?

    Jyoti: I come from a diabetic family. My parents are diabetic, and I am borderline diabetic. India now has ten crore (100 million) diagnosed diabetics. It’s a serious number, and somewhere I felt that the responsibility lies with irresponsible brands in pushing such products. Mainstream marketing and kind of, making it cool to have this ten times a day, and associating it with aspiration, with happiness, and with, you know, all of the other strokes of marketing. So, like, the seed was there in a way to build something responsible, to build something intentional, where it’s not just less bad for you, things that are good for you that can be bottled up. 

    There are many herbal recipes from our own Ayurveda. We selected tea as a base to make the blends flavorful and light on the palate and not douse everything with loud flavor and sugar. So that’s where it came from, a very personal place, but I’m glad it found resonance in the larger customer base. 

    I would also like to say that with all the destruction that COVID caused, I think a small glimmer of hope that it gave everybody was that people got conscious of what they were consuming overnight, and label awareness grew. They wanted to read the back of the label slightly more than they did previously. So if earlier you saw a product that says ‘Good for you,’ or ‘Increases height,’ or ‘Loses weight,’ they would pick it up, but today, they flip the bottle around and see what’s actually there in the nutritional panel. So that’s, in a rather big nutshell, my journey. I’m glad that I’m representing responsible brands in the space, and it’s an absolute privilege to do what I do and to survive the early days of difficult days of the business to be here to be talking to you today.

    Aravinda: How difficult was TeaFit to formulate and produce? And what did you have to do to achieve healthful flavor? In India, I also feel that we have become so used to things being slightly exaggerated in flavors, right? More spice, more sweet, deep fried, and we tend to associate those with better taste. I think that’s sort of what we’ve been given. So, on the production side, what did you have to do to ensure you still retain the integrity of what you wanted the product to have without compromising on flavor?

    Jyoti: I would like to take a minute to highlight that I was clueless. I was as clueless about the business as the next person on the street. So it did take me longer to figure out. I literally Googled on day one of quitting my job, ‘How do you make iced tea at scale’? Everything started with Google. And then, very soon realized there was no way I could do this myself; I needed to find people who knew more than me playing Einstein. So I would say that whatever success I’ve achieved, I think that’s more to do with the kind of talent I have been able to convince to come on board than being able to solve things quickly myself. 

    So I researched the top leaders in Ayurveda, who are the product heads of large companies like Himalaya Herbal, and then I went and knocked on their door and begged them to come on board and work on this idea with me. My broad stroke problem statement was that the product we want is a healthy beverage with no sugar and a base in tea. It features herbs blended in combinations that help you fight the stresses of modern life. You’re always on the go; you’re always ordering in food, something that would, you know, that could help you with digestion, that could help you feel light, energizing, that doesn’t add to the sleepiness. 

    The initial journey was difficult until I found the right people to work with. I feel that when you start out with the right intention, you find good people to work with. So, I would like to highlight a pharma company in the Ayurvedic space they are based in Nashik called Rev Pharma. I was a one-woman army, they could just shut the door in my face, but they didn’t; they respected the idea. And they allowed me and my team to utilize the facility to do the entire product development, do the tinkering on Ayurvedic formulation, and see what kind of extracts we would need. Would we need powdered extracts, liquid extracts, or spray-dried extracts? But we did struggle to come to the right flavor initially in the absence of sugar because first, you take out sugar, then you add, you know, a blend of 15 herbs.

    Some herbs are as bitter as noni fruit. I’m not sure how aware you are, but it’s really bitter. You can’t really take even a spoonful of it. We wanted the benefits. We didn’t want the bitterness. That took a lot of time to get right. It did taste bitter for, I think first three productions. And I knew if it didn’t taste great or how good for you it is, nobody’s going to drink it. We added licorice to it, and we added cinnamon to it, which kind of fools your mouth into making the flavor palate a little more rounded, with a faint hint of sweetness. A lot of iterations are what it took for us to get to the product. 

    We also didn’t want to lose the delicate flavor, the notes of the tea. We use our tea from a single-origin farm in Assam called Zendai Tea Estate and another similar state in Kerala for green tea. Initially, the tea would be too strong, and it would just be very astringent. It would have lost its finer top notes. So then we redid the entire fabrication of the brewing process. The manufacturing plants in India are typically made for either carbonated beverages or they’re made for fruit-based beverages. So for our tea brewing and herb brewing, we had to set up a whole different line wherein you do it outside the filling line at the temperature you want and then introduce the brew into the main filling line. So it did take a while for us to figure it out. Lots of failed experiments where an entire batch was on the floor because the filter got choked. So we’ve also had a journey where because we have done things from the ground up, seen every possible thing that could go wrong, and therefore, you know, we are now doing it right.

    Aravinda: So how long did it take from you know the point when you started the R&D and to, say the first batch that you said, Okay, I think we’ve cracked it?

    Joyti: Fourteen months is what it took, from the sketch of the product. And I also was a little bit ziddii*, in the sense that I didn’t want to take shortcuts, so I didn’t want a bottle that existed. So this bottle, you see, was designed by the Indian School of Design and Innovation, so it did take me some time to figure out who would do the bottles for us. And when you’re new, you don’t know the limitations of the industry. So I didn’t know that if you have a bottle like this, it’s hard for you to do hot fill because the bottle collapses so I also figured out a lot of things along the way like I said, I’ve made every mistake I could have made, and I am still alive.

    Aravinda: That itself calls for congratulations. Why tea? Why was your starting point tea?

    Joyti: I felt the kind of products I wanted to make was hard to do in a fruit-based beverage, and power drinks I didn’t want to touch in the beginning because, like I was anti-everything that carbonated drinks stood for. And also like I’m a tea person. I like tea. So it started as a pet project of mine, I used to do it in the kitchen, you know, hibiscus tea, and all sorts of tea, barley tea when I came back from Japan, and people started liking it. So I was like, this is one thing I know how to do. And let me work on this. I also felt like it allowed for the botanicals to find a good home for being effective and finding a synergized flavor. If you put the same thing in juices, it just tastes very off.

    My Nanaji (maternal grandfather) used to make black lemon black tea, which is legendary in our whole locality. He’s no more; God bless his soul. But I think I was hooked on that. So the first two or three things I wanted: I wanted his lemon black tea. And also, Aravinda, from a business perspective, the drink itself was alien to the Indian consumer. There was no unsweetened drink per se like there was an odd water or a couple of other drinks like that, but there was no drink with a personality of its own and was unsweetened. So there was a bit of unfamiliarity to begin with. And we didn’t want to make it further unfamiliar, like adding two steps of alienation by creating a flavor that’s not mainstream. We wanted to go with the two most mainstream flavors which are lemon and peach in iced tea, and give that to customers saying, “Look, your lemon and peach iced tea could be this.” So that’s what we wanted to go ahead with, just making it less complex as an introduction or making it less complex to decide on the first purchase, the first trial.

    As a business owner, your holy grail is trials and then eventually the beats. So for a bootstrapped brand, if you have to pursue trials, either your packaging has to be phenomenal, the brand has to be really catchy and simple for you to understand, or the product has to be really simple for you to understand. So for all of these reasons, we wanted to keep the complications kind of as minimum as possible. We made lemon black tea, and we did a peach drink tea, and we did barley tea which was something that I personally liked a lot it has immense health benefits, and it will be tragic if people don’t get to try it. These are the three products that we started with.

    Aravinda: Would you say health is still the main marketing angle for tea? Do you think people respond to health and wellness as in the marketing conversations, or is it flavor?

    Jyoti: As a product-first company, I will say if you don’t have a strong product, no amount of positioning of the product will really get the customer pull. So first, the product has to be incredibly strong, which means it has to check all the boxes. If you ask me what is important – is the health angle important, is the flavor important, is the price point important, is the availability important – I would say all of these four, if they are in place, only then there’s a hope that you know the customer will discover you, will decide to part with his money to try your product. So in my case, I was hell-bent on finding the right flavor. We wanted customers to come for the flavor. You flex on the flavor, you know? Health is something we take care of, it’s something that is in the product, but you come for the flavor. 

    Even the premixes that we have launched, milk tea premixes, are unsweetened, but if you drink the product, it is phenomenal. We could have put fillers in it or done all kinds of shortcuts to arrive at a cheaper product that probably would appeal to a wider range of audiences. But we didn’t. We were like, this is what we’ll do, we’ll find our consumers, maybe everybody’s not my customer. It’s important to know how wide a net you want to cast because that will determine what kind of product you will develop.

    Aravinda: And with marketing, have you relied heavily on online and digital, or have you gone for a bit of both?

    Jyoti: We knew that we have to be present in the offline touchpoints, wherever impulse buying happens. And so we our first point of sale was not online or on our website. It was Nature’s Basket stores in Mumbai. We started with a few of them. And in the longer view, if I take a longer view of things, I would say that distribution is probably more important than anything else regarding the beverage business. By that, I mean trade, finding the right channels, setting up distributors, and ensuring your product is available. Because even after Shark Tank, I feel like I lost a lot of customers, or maybe I advertised for my competitors in that sense because our distribution was not there. If somebody in Delhi went to buy a TeaFit after watching us on Shark Tank, we were not available. A lot of marketing without distribution is marketing for the competitor. So we’ve not done a lot of marketing; we are looking to focus on building deeper distribution within Mumbai, within Pune, and then spread radially from there. And online and commerce, we are pretty much everywhere today, on Big Basket, Blinkit, and these platforms. So we want to be wherever the customer is, in the best, most cost-efficient way. And most of our marketing is organic, we do some marketing on the platforms where they’re on. Like, if you’re an Amazon, we’ll do some Marketing on Amazon. And similarly, for the e-commerce platforms, we do some marketing in stores where we are, we do sampling activities.

    A big blitz will get you trials, right? It will get your eyeballs, will definitely make people curious, and make them try. But if you don’t have the right product, they will not return. So I always insist that it is not the first PO or the first order that matters, but it’s also the second PO, right? The second order, or, you know, the second time the distributor calls you and says, I need to talk. And those are the real markers of where the business is going.

    TeaFit Youtube Channel

    Aravinda: Tell me about the Shark Tank experience. Why did you choose to go? What happened? How was it? And how has it been post that?

    Joyti: I don’t think I chose it. I think it chose me because there were so many people who applied for it. And all great businesses. Many far ahead in the journey than me. In fact, I applied last year, also. I was like two weeks, two months into the business, I had done a sum total of Rs 20,000 in revenue and applied. So the guts were always there. And I did get through all the rounds, even in the first season. But I was traveling when they wanted to come, so I had to skip it. This season, I didn’t apply with any hopes. Honestly, I’ve seen all 85 episodes of Shark Tank to know that it’s almost a fluke that you make it or it’s a stroke of luck. So I would say that probably my story resonated with them. There are a couple of rounds of applications wherein they ask what’s your big vision? What’s the big idea? What is it that you’re building? And if you get shortlisted for a second round, which is also written down but fairly detailed in terms of revenue, product market fit, and your footprints, all of that. And then, you have to submit a three-minute video pitch to them. If they like it, they call you. And that day, I didn’t have any baby care at home. So I took my kids with me on the day of the auditions. So whoever is in the audition must attend the final shoot. So I had to take them on the final shoot even though I was unsure how the kids would behave. But I guess it went well. I am generally not a very camera-friendly person. I prepped for it, and then I went. I had done the business in and out from day one alone. So those answers you will always have, and I felt like that came through well in the show. We got a lot of love. Our phone didn’t stop ringing for weeks. We had 300-350 distributor inquiries overnight; sales skyrocketed, and the website shut down… so all of the good things a business faces, we faced all of that, and it has given us like catapult us into a different stratosphere.

    So I was playing at a very small business level, now I would say that, you know, we are fighting bigger problems. I have a bigger team overnight now. I was doing a couple of interns and a friend. Now I’ll have like a legitimate team of people. More than anything, people know about the brand. People know what we do. So the kind of exposure the brand gets makes up for any inhibitions you have as a founder. If you’re a consumer brand, if you’re at a stage where your product is available for people to buy, I think you should absolutely do everything in your power to try and get your 15 minutes on TV.

    Aravinda: Are you still riding on the success of that?

    Jyoti: It doesn’t sustain in the way, it becomes 100x in the first month, right? And then it slows to 50-60x, but that 5-6x would have taken you that long to get there on your own. Honestly, it’s hard to quantify everything that comes your way. Sales are one way to quantify, but just the number of opportunities that come up… brands like Zepto, Blinkit, and other e-commerce platforms. If I were nobody, which I was before Shark Tank, it would be much harder to get into closed-door conversations like that. And platforms like that, just access becomes a lot easier. I’ve been meeting people like Harsh Mariwala, and just being able to pick their brains for even a five-minute conversation, it’s a whole different mindset that it puts you into. You start to think about what’s possible and think of bigger possibilities for yourself, the brand, and what it can do. And, you know, you start to believe in leapfrogging and not just building brick by brick. This was one such milestone for us.

    Aravinda: Do you want TeaFit to be seen as a tea brand? One of the things within the industry I hear is that coffee is cool; tea hasn’t been able to crack that and get younger customers. Something like TeaFit would, I imagine, interest younger people. So how does TeaFit fit into the larger developments shaping Indian tea?

    Joyti: So we feel like there’s a ton of scope to make tea cool, and tea associated with the elderly is, I think, an idea of yesterday purely because it has not been presented in the way with the amount of cool as that coffee does. As a tea-drinking country, I feel like there is an absolutely wide open gap to create a brand that is intentional that is responsible that is cool that is that aligns with the value systems of the young buyer today, and we absolutely consider ourselves to be a tea band before you know any other brands so There’s a lot of innovation that we are currently working on, to innovate on different products and incorporate tea in it. Maybe chocolates. We are working on not just a vertical extension of the product but also taking it horizontally and seeing what else we can do with tea and what other products we can incorporate tea into. I feel like we are at a stage where discerning young people want more than traditional cola/ energy drinks. You do see a lot of experimentation in the cocktail space, in the cocktail/mocktail space, the party space, so to speak. I feel like no innovation has happened in the tea and RTD beverages. So we’re glad to be going after that space and building a brand that resonates with the youth and hopefully makes tea drinking as cool as coffee.

    *Ziddii: Adjective. Headstrong, stubborn, obstinate, intractable, adamant, obdurate, intractable. Rekhta Dictionary

  • Spice and Tea Synergy

    Vahdam Tea founder Bala Sarda is launching a new line of 25 Indian spices grown free of adulterants and pesticides and manufactured without artificial colors. Initially, Vahdam spices will be sold directly to consumers and later offered in grocery stores.

    Listen to the interview
    Bala Sarda talks to Aravinda Anantharaman about spicing up his tea line
    Vikas Khanna & Bala Sarda
    Chef Vikas Khanna and Vahdam Tea Founder Bala Sarda

    Bala Sarda’s Vahdam Tea turned eight this year. From launching Vahdam as a brand that connects tea drinkers with producers to a range of superfoods with turmeric, moringa, and matcha, Vahdam’s journey has been about an Indian brand offering consumers across the world what they want, direct from the source. The latest addition to the brand is a range of Indian spices, now offered not unlike their tea. We talk to Bala about the new launch and what it means for Brand Vahdam.

    Aravinda Anantharaman:  Thank you, Bala, for joining us here at Tea Biz. I know it’s a busy time for you. But first, congratulations on all the developments and in particular the launch of Vahdam Spices. How did that come about? And how does that fit into the larger Vahdam Brand?

    Bala Sarda: Thanks, Aravinda for having me on the show. Excited to be here. I think this is just to give you a sense of our vision and our dream with which we are trying to build the brand, right from the early days that I started this almost eight years back, in 2015. This month will actually turn eight. And from day one, I think one of the key things we identified, Aravinda, was this incredible opportunity, which India as a country offers. I think if you really look at a product like tea, as we all know, India is one of the largest producers and exporters of tea in the world. In fact, almost a quarter of the world’s production of tea happens in India. You look at tea-growing regions like Darjeeling, Assam, and the Nilgiris, these are GI indications, right? Just like Champagne and Cognac in France. I think we genuinely know that there’s a consensus among connoisseurs that India grows the finest tea in the world.

    We looked at a category like spices even early on, where, if you look at the stats, India is the largest producer and exporter of spices in the entire world. We have the largest variety of spices we make as a country. If you look at some of the more popular variants of spices, say turmeric, 80% of the world’s turmeric is actually made in India and the list goes on and on. Yoga, Ayurveda… there is so much India has to offer and I think, very early on, we realized that all these products are being exported from India at single-digit margins. There is no Indian brand or there is no brand at origin, which is, adding value and taking this product to consumers in global markets. There is no innovation in the category, Of course as we know right supply chain was extremely broken. There were multiple middlemen, right from a farmer in India to consumers sitting even across the world And that just told us that there is an opportunity for us as a brand to solve and make available a much better higher quality, fresher product to consumers.

    Lastly, and most importantly, tea is also, the largest employer of labor in India. You add spices to it, this is potentially the largest employer of organized labor in India. And India is the most populated country in the world now, according to some stats. I think this is a massive, massive industry we are talking about that has been, plagued with stagnancy right? The farmer’s costs have not gone up, and the prices of tea and spices have not gone up. Everybody wants to come out of this industry. Estate owners want to shut their estates down or sell them even though this is such an amazing business on the consumer-facing side of things. This is such an integral part of consumers’ life in all these markets. And I think the biggest reason for that again was that there was no value addition. And there was no homegrown brand, which was taking it taking it to the world.

    So, just like tea, where we said, hey, can we cut down the middleman, source direct, process it, bring innovation to the product, to our supply chain, and make available a much better product to consumers through the power of the internet? I think the crux of everything we do at Vahdam is the internet. I think it’s truly democratized global consumer brand building because today’s sitting out of India, a brand like Vahdam can you know, can sell to over 3.5 million consumers globally, which I think was unimaginable right before the internet came in. So of course, the bedrock of our distribution is the Internet.

    So when you combine all of this, the gap in the market, the opportunity to make available a better product plus obviously a strong differentiated brand story, that is obviously high trust with origin brands, you know all French wines, Scotch, chocolates, anything and everything that we’ve grown up, believing that origin products are more trusting And third is the internet is how we sort of built business in tea for the last eight years.

    That said, I think we were fortunate to have a tremendous response, And I think there were two, or three signals, which got us to get into spices. First of all, Aravinda, a lot of our teas have spices as an ingredient in them. In fact, a lot of our herbal teas that don’t have tea, it’s basically a concoction of different spices. In addition to that, we launched this very innovative range of turmeric teas back in the day in the US which is widely popular across markets.

    Very early on I think a lot of our consumers started emailing me and telling the team that while they love the quality of our spices and they consume tea, they do not have an alternate option, which is as good when they want to, use it for say, lattes, for their cooking, for curries so on and so forth. And that got us thinking that there is a tremendous opportunity even in the spices market for applications, which is non-tea, right? So that is something we’ve been receiving as customer feedback for the last three years, if not more.

    Second, if you look at the brand, Aravinda, the long-term vision of Vahdam is to take the best of India to the world, right? Going back to why we started, what we are doing with Vahdam was, can we take the best of India to the world under a proud, ethical, sustainable, homegrown label? After getting some stability in tea, if I can put it like that, we said, hey, what’s the second category we can get into and you know, probably create an impact near to what we are trying to do in tea? This is what has got to think of spices as a very, very natural progression, right?

    I’ll give you a small example. We did this brand study to understand what consumers think of us selling spices. A lot of those consumers thought Vahdam is already selling spices. So, that just tells you that the perception was always this is a brand, which is bringing the best of India to the world, and that again, you know, just reinforced our, our vision of, getting into spices.

    And lastly, and most importantly, I think, over the last three years, we have spent a lot of time like tea in building the supply chain. We work with a lot of direct farmers, and cooperatives. Unlike tea, I would say spices are slightly more disorganized. You will see a lot many smaller farmers versus, you know, like a Darjeeling is 87 estates. So I would call it organized versus, you know, somebody growing tulsi to see in Utter Pradesh, you know, there will be thousands and thousands of farmers doing that, right? So bringing them together, with the consistency, the quality… Of course, it’s a product, which is exclusively available outside India. So obviously there are several parameters around the use of pesticides, the product being organic, the product being pesticides and toxins free, right? So I think we spent a lot of time over the last three years or more. In fact, because of tea, we had started using it, but we got very, very serious about it in the last 24-36 months in the spices categories as well. And then we were sure that we have something that we can scale is when we decided to you know, finally get into spices around our 8th Founders Day.

    Kitchen Essentials
    Kitchen Essentials line

    Aravinda: You talked about the supply chain innovation, you talked about the product innovation. So what were the lessons you were able to bring from the journey you’ve had with tea into spices?

    Bala: I’ll start with product innovation. First-time entrepreneurs can be very naive and I’ll be very, very honest with that, right? Sometimes you think you have, you have created a product. And there is a demand for that. One of the things which I learned in my journey at Vahdam Teas, building the tea category which we still, I think it’s still very, very early days and we’re still building that, so, don’t get me wrong there, but I think was, how do you listen to your customers more, right? So here I think instead of believing what we can make available to customers, which is what we did with tea in the early days, here, everything was customer-driven.

    The signal for us to get into this category came from customers which we, then obviously took that signal, went very deep, probed our current customers, and did multiple studies in the market to first, understand: Should we do it? If we do it, what are the kind of products we need to do? What are the real challenges in this category? And then we identified trust as a big deficit. There was a big trust deficit, especially for products coming out of India. You would have a foreign label branding it is as packed in America. Obviously, the tea, the spices being Indian, which was still being accepted. But, again, like what I saw with tea early on as well, right, we saw that with spices. We, very early on, realized that, how do you build amazing trust with the customer and you know he is going to be super critical around, everything we do. And of course, having the Vahdam brand equity made a big difference in helping us do that.

    But from a product side of things, I’d like to give you a small example. We work with organic-certified farmers across India. Most of our spices are certified organic whichever can be and we will try to keep it that. Despite the fact that we also want to work with a lot of small farmers who on paper have absolutely toxin and pesticide-free products but which time we potentially certified organic because if you have one acre of land just the cost of certification is so high. So we also want to support them. We build trust by, you know, ensuring that all our spices are tested in European labs, which are considered to be the most, the highest standards in terms of testing parameters and just the sensitivity of that instruments around the product. So I think a lot of these things were, very, very critical to us getting to the product. And what’s our brand positioning, what’s our go-to-market? What do we communicate to our consumers? And I think that that’s the one learning, I think all of this, we did was actually based on all our learnings you got in the tea category and things we went wrong or fumbled rather several times in our journey, building the tea category, that would be number one.

    And on the supply chain piece, I think, Aravinda, I think, to be honest, I believe it’s a playbook we are trying to build, right? If you look at tea and spices, I think the only fundamental difference was that spices were a slightly more tougher and disorganized category, versus even tea. But I think the principles of our supply chain, which is, how we ensure we source direct from farmers. How do we cut out middlemen? How do we ensure that we sort of address the fragmented supply chain?  How do we ensure that there is enough no matter where you source it from?

    All our spices are packed in our own facility. Like tea, we source, process, blend, and package 100% of our spices within our facility today. It’s BRC Certified A grade facility in the NCR region near the Delhi airport and ships it out to consumers.

    Investing in the supply chain early on can give you long-term results is again, something we knew very, very closely. So I think broadly no real learnings in the supply chain piece because that’s really what we had done. Probably right in tea and… you know just how do you scale that up and do it in slightly different categories is really the challenge we are addressed since the last 24 months.

    Aravinda: Why have Indian spices not been marketed as single-origin spices? Is it because it’s also a commoditized segment?

    Bala: Two reasons. I think one definitely I think it’s been very, very commoditized. The category, the product has been extremely commoditized over the years, even though it’s an amazing, such an important part of our lives. It adds flavors, spice, and so much life to your kitchen, to your food, and to everything you consume right. And a lot of things that don’t even come on that level of impact in your life still have been marketed better. I think it was just about somebody, you know, taking that step and trying to, at least market the product better. And, that’s really, the first understanding we had. That it’s a commoditized market but it’s very, very important to the consumer, which means that has the potential to sort of create a differentiated brand positioning in this category. And that’s what we really trying to do.

    And second, I think India grows the best spices in the world. I think that is absolutely no doubt. Again not because I run now, a category of spices through our brand, but I think if you compare it, I think there’s a general consensus among chefs all over the world, among food connoisseurs, and enthusiasts that the flavor, the aroma, the density of oils, just the quality of Indian spices is phenomenal. And when that is there, I think it makes sense to help market the origin. Why can’t a Lakadong turmeric not be as popular as the Darjeeling first flush or a Kerala cardamom or a Telicherry black pepper be as popular as a black tea from Assam? I think it’s it all comes down to making that high-quality product available, consistently branding, it positioning it and just ensuring that there is trust and trust is built by just doing the right thing several times over and over right for several years. That’s really what we vision to do with spices. And I think if we can do that, I believe, Indian origin spices can really stand, gather a lot of real estate even in foreign retailers and of course most important in the minds of our mainstream consumers in these markets.

    Aravinda: The Western market is an important focus market for you, isn’t it? When will you launch spices for India?

    Bala: I think on a lighter note. I think, like our strategy, the 24 hours a day has also been consistent and that is not changed. So I think it is just a matter of, to be very honest, I think it just been a matter of focus. Like tea, right? It was always about when we will do India rather than if we will do India. And I think just give him the bandwidth, the depth of the market, and the impact we can potentially create with the time and the resources we have as a team. We just realize that it is more efficient and more effective to sort of focus on some of these markets first. And that’s really what we did with teas. And that’s exactly, you know, what we are trying to do with spices as well. But that said, I think, you know, once we are able to get some understanding we are able to create some impact and foreign markets. Of course, we will end up coming and launching in the India market also, hopefully soon.

    Aravinda: Has the choice of people you’ve sought for brand endorsements and partnerships been about building trust? With spices, you have Vikas Khanna. What was the thought behind this partnership?

    Bala: This is our first – I don’t even use the word commercial because Vikas is genuinely and truly a fan of Vahdam. He was our consumer even with teas and when he got to know about spices, he was like, we have to do this together and we sort of collaborated, even though there is a commercial collaboration to a small level there. But before that, till today, I think every endorsement right from Oprah [Winfrey] to Ellen [Degeneres] to Mariah Carey, Nicole Scherzinger very recently, these are 100% organic or revenue share partnerships where these more people who were fans of the brand and that’s why like I said. And we’ve been very lucky and fortunate to have been able to get our products to them. And them appreciating the brand, the story, and everything we are doing. And so that in tea, all these partnerships you see are 100% organic and I can say that on the record because they are. With spices, as I said, we were very sure that it is a category that is foreign to tea, right? Vahdam is considered as a tea brand and we’re doing that transition. So I think to sort of put that message out, we wanted a slightly higher impact, in terms of knowing the kind of people we can reach and the noise we can create. And that’s number one.

    Number two, as I said, I think trust is very, very important, to the entire process, right? And a Michelin Star chef, a MasterChef judge is launching a brand of spices, which is native to his country, I think stays a lot somebody who’s been pretty much approached by any and every country and every spice company in the world, or at least from India.

    And then third is, I think no better way, you know, to take Indian spices to the world with the man who’s actually, who’s been at the forefront and the flag bearer of taking Indian cuisine, Indian aromas, you know, to a modern consumer and to the mainstream audience in markets like the America right? Like the US. I think absolutely, you know, no brainer for us to work with him and you know and we hope you sort of continue this partnership for a long-term basis.

    Q6: How will the spice segment expand? What’s in the pipeline?

    Bala Sarda: I’m in the firstly very, very excited to be doing this. I think it’s an incredibly large opportunity. We are very, very passionate about taking India under a proud, ethical homegrown label to the world. And, you know, I think, and taking it to consumers, with spices, we can also get much more from a consumer’s day because you spend so much more time cooking and eating your food. So, I think that’s, that’s really very, very exciting for us. And, driving us to sort of do this and try and make this successful but from our from a product perspective like I said, right? We’re coming out with almost 20 to 25 single-origin spices in the first phase, that’s really what we’re doing. So the best of Indian single-origin spices, right? From your turmeric to ginger to black pepper, clove any, or every spices you spice you can think of. Right from Himalayan rock salt. A chili powder from some several, several spice-growing regions in India. And in addition, to that, in the next phase, you will see a lot of spice mixes and seasonings coming from our portfolio, which is basically a pre-made concoction. I think it’s gonna be the same spices we’re selling a single origin but you know for people who like their spices in a certain ratio as a certain concoction you know our spice blends and our spice mixes right from a chai masala to a lot of these Indian taste to even some very modern American flavors, you know because ultimately the application needs to be for an American or a European and a mainstream consumer to actually use it in, in his or her daily life. So you will see a lot of that also, coming from us. And lastly, it’s very important to position the category in a certain way I think for far long, I think, the spices category has not been disrupted, and the spice box is still a very boring part of your kitchen. We want to sort of enlighten that. We want to make it colorful, we want to add a lot of color, brand, and storytelling to that. And you will see you know, assortments and gifts and all of that also coming from our portfolio, like what we did with tea,  to sort of just ensure that, consumers perceive this product in a much better way than they do today,

    The dream rather is to actually create this platform of high-quality Indian products. Create an entity, create a brand that is really trusted, which is consistent, which is, which is as per global brands. Taking India as a brand and making that more trusted ultimately is really, what makes us very, very passionate. Obviously, it’s a great feeling when you see an Indian brand selling in a Bloomingdales or a Whole Foods Canada or a Sprouts Farmer’s Market, which is packed in India, from India. And I think that’s really what drives us every day. So, I think, like tea, spices are an absolute Indian category, and we deserve a global player creating impact in this category, not only in the US, not only in Europe, but pretty much all countries globally. Because like I said, 80% of the world’s turmeric comes from India. Most of the world’s ashwagandha comes from India. And these are, these are life-changing spices. These are spices, which can help you live a better life, better lifestyle, your mental health… So, there are also a lot of strong wellness connotations attached to spices like tea. I think it’s just very exciting for us to take this, from India to the world. And we will do everything it takes to make this available to consumers and hopefully make it worth their while.

    Aravinda: There was tea, then there were superfoods, and now spices. Is Brand Vahdam a story that’s still being written?

    It is, Aravinda. I think we’re probably in the second chapter, and probably hopefully it’s a longer book than we would also imagine. I think one step one step at a time. And I think for us, two critical goals are – how do we ensure everything we are doing in tea and how do we go deeper in that while at the same time we make spices a success. From our product market fit perspective, this is really what we are focusing on this year. And hopefully, you’ll see more coming out from our umbrella over the next year or so.

    Download Vahdam Spice Booklet (PDF)
  • Fresh Thinking for a New Era in Tea

    Brook37 founder Mou Dasgupta says the new era of tea is not just introducing tea, it’s also explaining how you consume the tea. We are saying that yes, traditionally, you drink tea from a cup, but why not break the barriers and drink tea from a champagne glass or chill the tea and drink it in a martini glass? Make other drinks using tea. Open up your imagination, don’t be bound by the past. Take our old drink, modernize it, and just do fun things with tea.

    Listen to the Interview

    Mou Dasgupta, founder of Brook37 The Atelier

    Mou Dasgupta, founder of Brook37 The Atelier

    Elegance Begins with the Leaf

    Mou Dasgupta is pursuing her passion for tea after 25 years of trendsetting corporate leadership in the financial services industry. She developed a love for fine-quality tea while living in West Bengal, India, where she attended university in Calcutta. She trained in the sciences and holds a master’s degree in software engineering. “Brook37 is proud to bring fresh thinking and an ethical and sustainable mindset to all we do,” she says. “Our unparalleled tea selection of flavors, aromas, and colors from around the world, along with exquisite packaging, help you choose a positive and aspirational lifestyle.”

    Dan Bolton: Thank you for taking the time to talk about your vision of a new era in tea and how it led to the launch of Brook37, a premium brand sourced directly from suppliers in the most famous of India’s tea-growing regions. What are some aspects of this new era?

    Mou Dasgupta: In describing a new era of tea, what I want to talk about is tea reimagined in the USA.

    The new era of tea is not just introducing tea it’s also explaining how you consume the tea. So what we are saying is that yes, traditionally you tea drink tea from a cup, but why not break the barriers and drink tea from a champagne glass, or chill the tea and drink it in a martini glass. Make other drinks using tea. Open up your imagination, don’t be bound by the past. Take our old drink and modernize it and just do fun things with tea.

    That’s how I feel that the younger generation may find it more interesting. When I go to a friend’s house, they offer me Diet or a regular Coke, or maybe a club soda as a non-alcoholic beverage. I want people to offer tea. It is a non-alcoholic beverage with fantastic health values. So, keep our tea caddy next to your wine bottle and open a beautiful tea caddy when your special guests arrive. That’s how I want to position tea.

    Dan: You grew up drinking good tea.

    Mou: I moved to the USA from a place that is about 300 miles from Darjeeling about 25 years back, and one of my big struggles was to find the high-quality tea that I used to drink before I moved to the USA.

    Over here, you can find great coffee stores everywhere but finding a great tea shop takes a lot of work. Tea is also looked upon as a health drink. It has many health values, but I want to make people understand that tea can bring people together. Tea can reconnect people and rejuvenate, it’s a drink that can elevate the moment, and it’s a non-alcoholic drink with value like fine wine. And you know, in wine, the quality of the grapes, the soil, and the weather drive how the taste and the flavor will vary. Darjeeling tea is exactly like that. I want to make people aware. I want them to taste Darjeeling tea and see that it’s a different drink altogether.

    Dan: Many brands position themselves as premium, but only a few succeed in conveying the elegance visible in your color palette, your choice of tins, and a clever pairing of an engraved traditional silver-plated infuser with a modern silver measuring spoon in your gift set Will you discuss your view on what makes a tea premium?

    Mou: First, elegance starts with the look of the tea leaves. A high-quality tea leaf is not dust. It’s a long, beautiful leaf, and it is rolled to perfection. It’s dried to perfection. It’s hand-picked at the perfect time. Recently on a trip to Darjeeling, I noticed a tea leaf plucked before the rain can taste and smell different than a leaf plucked after the rain. It’s the elegance of flavor. It’s the elegance of taste.

    To that, we added silver accessories. When you drink a high-quality Scotch or a single malt, you could drink it from a plastic cup, but most drink it from a beautiful crystal glass. High-quality Darjeeling tea demands that kind of setting. It is more than just flavor and not just the tea’s color. It’s also the accessories, all of them, that elevate the moment.

    That’s where beautiful packaging comes in and where the look of the tea matters. So that people feel it’s a beautiful moment that they’re creating, whether it’s with their children, whether it’s with their grandchildren, whether it’s their significant other, or by themselves. Tea is an elevation of the moment — any moment.

    Dan: You have a wonderful founding story, first finding success as a software engineer, angel investor, and executive director of JP Morgan Chase and Morgan Stanley before directing your talents to tea.

    Mou: My primary inspiration is that for 25 years, I have been looking for this kind of tea. I had a very hard time finding Darjeeling tea like the tea that I enjoyed in India. In our Country, in the USA, the tea comes through many hands a lot of the time, and every time you open a bag, the quality of the tea goes down.

    When I left my job and decided I wanted to do something on my own, something more meaningful, tea kept coming back to me.

    I realized this was an opportunity because all the best quality teas get picked up by Germany by Japan right away from Darjeeling. In most cases, they don’t come to our country. We are deprived of that highest quality. Brook37 is buying exclusive small lots of seven to ten kilos of the best Darjeeling offers.

    That’s what drove me. I don’t want to just bring the tea; I want to bring the whole experience with it. We call ourselves the Chanel of tea because we present tea as a high-end beverage that celebrates life. We have created a brand that will catch everyone’s attention, all the sensorial organs, the look, smell, touch and feel all of it together. That’s what inspired me.

    I didn’t want a company that was all about money or finance. It was not a motivating factor for me. I wanted to have a responsible company. There is a saying that we do not inherit nature or the environment from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.

    I didn’t want a company that was all about money or finance. It was not a motivating factor for me. I wanted to have a responsible company. There is a saying that we do not inherit nature or the environment from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.

    The environment that I’m borrowing from my children, I want to give it back in good shape in a conscious way. Hence we are building a conscious brand from day one, plastic-neutral, biodegradable and reusable packaging, certified by 1% by the planet, etc. It must be empowering, and it must be socially conscious.

    “There is a saying that ‘we do not inherit this earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.’ I want to give back in good shape the environment we have borrowed from our children.”

    – Mou Dasgupta

    Dan: Will you share your inspiration for creating a women-led team with listeners?

    Mou: It’s not a conscious decision. I didn’t come in saying that I was only going to hire women. But 90 percent of the people who work in our brand happen to be women. We found the best talents who happen to be women. The best tea pluckers are women, and the best tea packaging laborers are women. Our tea sommelier happens to be a woman. Our photographer and videographer is a woman. Even our marketer and our social media leads are women. I just happened to have a team of women I found to be the best at their work.

    By elevating Darjeeling tea, we also elevate the people back in Darjeeling. It’s with pride that we produce one of the best teas in the world. I want them to share that sense of pride. Darjeeling should be a name that stands above the rest, not just a tea; it is a distinguished beverage, and hopefully, Brooke37 will give that to them.

    Dan: Will you discuss sourcing? That’s a challenge in Darjeeling right now, with many of the 87 registered estates in distress, several recently acquired, and all experiencing an overall decline in production from around 10 million kilos 10 years ago to six million kilos in recent years.

    Mou: My primary goal is to bring the best quality tea in my country to the USA. And it is not to promote Darjeeling’s biggest tea growers or tea estates. It’s really to work with anybody who is growing high-quality tea.

    We are looking for small growers. We’re looking for entrepreneurs innovating new types of teas and bringing them here at a good price.  I do feel that, at times, the prices are compromised. When someone gives 70% to 80% off the price of tea, that is just dust of Darjeeling tea, and calls them Darjeeling; they are diminishing Darjeeling tea to the world. Sometimes the price paid at the back end is too low and unfair to the tea growers.

    We are ready to pay $100 for a bottle containing five glasses of fine wine, but we are not ready to pay $100 for 40-50 cups of the finest tea. If we don’t elevate Darjeeling to that point, people in the back end will always suffer.

    I alone don’t have the power to eliminate poverty in Darjeeling. I make sure that I at least do my part. I promote their work, I promote their tea, and I promote their small businesses because I am also a small business owner.

    Related: Our Story

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  • Brew Good: Grace Farms Seeks to End Forced Labor

    Grace Farms Foods CEO Adam Thatcher says that even though slavery was abolished globally nearly a century ago, more than 28 million people are trapped in forced labor worldwide. Poverty and lack of access to education create opportunities for those who stand to benefit from the exploitation of vulnerable men, women, and children. In modern times, forced labor takes the form of work with little to no pay, fear and coercion, and restricted freedom of movement. This often occurs at the beginning of the supply chain when our tea is grown, food is harvested, our clothes are made, and the materials used in our buildings are extracted.

    Listen to the Interview

    Grace Farms Foods CEO Adam Thatcher
    Grace Farms Foods CEO Adam Thatcher

    Ethically and Sustainably Sourced Tea

    What makes our line of organic teas unique is that the herbal blends are naturally sweet ? much sweeter than you’d normally expect. They’ve got about 10% organic stevia leaf in them, just as if you were to pick it out of the garden. Since the success with those blends, we’ve been developing a line of black teas, and we’re getting ready to come out with green tea and wellness blends, says Grace Farm Foods CEO Adam Thatcher.

    Grace Farms Foundation aspires to advance good in the world, providing a peaceful respite and porous platform to experience nature, encounter the arts, pursue justice, foster community, and explore faith.

    Dan Bolton: Adam, welcome to the podcast. Tell us about your mission and vision and introduce our listeners to how the tea you sell plays a key role in improving suppliers’ lives.

    Adam Thatcher: Thank you for having me on the program. I’m a big fan and very excited to share our story.

    The story begins at this amazing place called Grace Farms. It’s a cultural and humanitarian Center in New Canaan, Connecticut, where we’re free and open to the public, we pursue justice, and where people can come and encounter the arts.

    We also foster community at this place. We want to be open and welcoming and inviting to everyone.

    Tea has played a critical role, tea being this common beverage that everyone enjoys around the world that conveys a sense of hospitality of welcoming from a host to a guest, but also the comforting nature that when you come to a new place, whether it’s at a friend’s house, or going to a place like Grace Farms, a nice warm beverage helps you lower your shoulders a little bit, find that commonality and then begin the dialogue.

    So, our story with tea begins there. We expanded our tea game to another level when we established Grace Farms Foods, a public benefits subsidiary of Grace Farms Foundation created to share our signature coffees and teas with the world. And that’s really where we got started.

    Grace Farms' elegantly flowing roof. Photo by Sahar Coston Hardy
    Grace Farms’ elegantly flowing roof. Photo by Sahar Coston Hardy

    Dan: Your range of premium teas seeks to end forced labor and mirrors Grace Farms’ aesthetic: Making the world more just, sustainable, and peaceful. Will you tell listeners about your blends and sourcing strategy?

    Adam: Our tea blends are unique because Grace Farms resident tea master Frank Kwei developed them.

    Frank has welcomed hundreds of thousands of visitors to Grace Farms with a warm cup of tea and fantastic conversation explaining what Grace Farms is. Our first line of teas were organic herbal blends that are his own family recipes.

    Frank Kwei

    What makes them unique is that the herbal blends are naturally sweet, much sweeter than you’d normally expect. They’ve got about 10% organic Stevia leaf in them, just as if you were to pick it out of the garden. I find it hard to go back and drink a regular herbal tea like chamomile that doesn’t have this natural sweetness. And for us, it’s exciting because we’ve packaged a perfect blend all in one sachet, with no need to add sugar that probably isn’t organic and has been heavily processed.

    Since the success with those blends, we’ve been developing a line of black teas, and we’re getting ready to come out with green teas and wellness blends, all using Frank’s expertise to come up with these inspiring blends.

    Dan: Where are you sourcing your teas from?

    Adam: We source teas and herbals from around the world. So right now, our teas are coming from India and Sri Lanka. We’re now going to begin bringing in teas, green teas from China, and Matcha from Japan. The herbals come from a wide variety of places. For example, rooibos comes from South Africa, lavender from Croatia, and chamomile from Egypt. We are trying to find the best origins from a quality standpoint and then digging into the supply chain to ensure that they are ethically and sustainably produced, sourced, and traded.

    Dan: Let’s talk about your concerns about forced labor and the problems associated with child labor. Describe for our listeners what can be done and how.

    Grace Farms Foundation is a not-for-profit organization, and its stake in the ground is to end forced labor worldwide. It has a particular focus on supply chain analysis and a priority on the building materials supply chain because it sits at the interesting intersection of architecture and human rights.

    Tea has given us this new opportunity to not only demonstrate through building materials, which is a very unconsumed friendly industry, right? You build a building once, and it lasts for 50 years, whereas tea is something that’s consumed daily. So, when we decided to start Grace Farms Foods, we ultimately decided to start it with three goals. The first is to share our signature teas with everyone. The second is to demonstrate and educate about ethical and sustainable supply chains. And the third is giving back 100% of the profits to support Design for Freedom. This initiative began at Grace Farms to stop forced labor in the architecture and construction industry.

    We began building a program to demonstrate and educate about ethical and sustainable supply chains during the pandemic. The opportunity to travel to origin wasn’t an option, to begin with, so we started by saying, okay, how do we have some reassurance that we’re not participating in forms of child labor but also make sure that human rights are being respected and, and that fair pay is being given to those farmers or those tea workers for the work that they’re doing?

    So, we looked at Fairtrade certification and changed our Fairtrade certifier to partner with Fairtrade International and the US branch of Fairtrade International, which is Fairtrade America; it’s the most globally recognized Fairtrade certification around the world. It began in Europe and works with FLOCERT. We saw this as an opportunity to lead the conversation in the tea industry here in the United States by partnering with Fairtrade International to become Fairtrade America’s first US brand to use Fairtrade-certified ingredients in our teas.

    Fairtrade International has more rigorous standards, and it is producer-led. It focuses on smallholder farms and includes those stakeholders in every conversation, from setting standards to paying premiums and minimums to the ecology and environmental practices exhibited by these certified farms that we sourced from, so that was the beginning for us. But then that’s just using a third party to say, Okay, there’s been an audit, they’ve met our standards, but then there’s this need for what I think is the most important is that first party audit you going to the origin, meeting with the tea pickers, talking with the team managers, and making sure what they’re saying aligns with what the factory worker is saying, as you’re asking these questions, and getting to really immerse yourself in the culture. Tea in some of these areas around the world, like Darjeeling, is more than just a job or an industry. It is life. It is culture. And so, for us to experience that was incredibly validating. It creates an opportunity for long-term relationships when you find a partner with values alignment like your own.

    Dan: Two-thirds of the transaction price is concentrated toward the retail end of the tea supply chain. How do you bridge the gap between a consumer paying a higher price and a producer not fully benefitting from that well-intentioned purchase?

    Adam: As I mentioned, partnerships are the cornerstone to creating a fantastic and sustainable product, not only from the conventional view of sustainability, environmental and from humans, right said but also from a business side, right, because as you develop a stronger relationship and partnership, then you find more efficiencies, and you’re able to supply even a larger market. Our partnership began, ultimately, with a fantastic individual by the name of Kunall Patel, who is the owner and CEO of Davidson’s Organics.

    In my opinion, all tea needs to be organic. It is crazy that the wide, very large share of the tea market is grown with pesticides sprayed on it and synthetic fertilizers put into it. This is a very, very lightly processed product that is put in a cup with boiling hot water poured on it. Then you drink it. So growing tea organically addresses two issues, the consumer’s health and the lasting effect on our environment.

    Organic farming practices have been proven to protect soil health, improve water retention, create more resilient plants, and create a more reliable crop year after year. So that should be the non-negotiable, lowest common denominator the entire tea industry should be moving towards.

    Now, beyond that, right? Let’s be honest, deforestation is also occurring because there is not a proper living wage for small farmers which is the reason they need to continue expanding their growing areas. The last consideration is whether the suppliers are using biodynamic practices. Biodynamic farming is essential. Intercropping with native species of trees and other shrubs that attract different types of microorganisms and insects that all benefit the soil health, not only helping to trap carbon tea, is actually a very effective plant at absorbing CO2 and trapping it in the soil. Biodynamic farming practices accelerate that process.

    So, that’s where there needs to be buy-in, and that does have to come from consumers. Right? Consumers need to stop buying tea that’s not organic and does not meet those standards.

    Our commitment is that the tea source will meet these minimum requirements. One of the reasons we chose to partner with Fairtrade International is because they have a whole Climate Resilience Program that helps educate the producers at origin on how to create more resilient farms and how to use more organic practices that will combat climate change.

    As we grow and we’re able to generate a profit, nothing would make us happier than to continue to strengthen those relationships with the producers where we’re sourcing our teas.

    Grace Farms: The Season of Light

    During the winter season, Grace Farms offers opportunities to reflect and engage in programs for people of all ages, from afternoon tea on Wednesdays, served by expert Frank Kwei, to helping those in need to listening to improvisational arrangements of seasonal musicto participating in one of our many programs related to our initiatives of nature, arts, justice, community, faith, and Design for Freedom.

    As in all seasons, visitors are invited to explore our nearly 80 acres of natural landscapes and walking trails. For those interested in a deeper understanding of nature and our universe, there are a variety of facilitated programs such as bird watching and astronomy. Grace Farms is open and free to public six days a week.

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  • Estate-Direct Tea Retail at Scale

    Rudra Chatterjee, the dynamic managing director of Luxmi Tea, has expanded and diversified the venerable 30-million-kilo bulk tea producer into direct-to-consumer retail. Luxmi, which operates 25 estates in India and Africa, has shortened the supply chain to deliver fresher tea and now sources herbal infusions and inclusions for blends locally. Chatterjee discusses with South Asia Correspondent Aravinda Anantharaman his vision for rebranding the company as Luxmi Estates.

    Listen to the Interview

    Rudra Chatterjee on the rebranding of Luxmi Tea
    Bungalow at Makaibari Tea Estate, India

    Fresh Start: Luxmi Seeks to Shorten the Supply Chain

    When I last spoke with Rudra Chatterjee, Managing Director of the 110-year-old Luxmi Tea, he discussed a pivot to selling the brand’s offerings direct, as COVID brought more consumers online. Two years later, Luxmi Estates has launched as a significant business vertical. The retail brand offers a range of teas with a subscription program. In this interview, Rudra provides an update on future plans and explains his reasons for rebranding.

    See: Will the Pivot Online be the Catalyst the Farm-to-Cup Movement Needs?

    Aravinda Anantharaman: It’s been a while since we last spoke. Luxmi Tea has undergone a rebranding. Do talk to us about it.

    Rudra Chatterjee: I sense that there are two, or three aspects to it. There are some right-at-the-top marketing aspects to it, but below that, I think there are some layers to it. I always joke that this company was born in some sort of revolution.

    So we want to do something new, whether planting new bushes in Africa or in – although it wasn’t part of Luxmi then – Makaibari going organic. So it has a lot of DNA for trying new things. There are a few aspects to it. Number one is more than any other product, that tea is best fresh. But the supply chain isn’t designed to make it as fresh as possible. I think that’s something that we would like to start and we would like many other companies to follow: to make the tea as fresh and have it, using technology, to the customer as soon as possible.

    The second aspect, which is I think even more worthwhile, is tea estates have become monocultural spaces but it’s important to grow other herbs. For good or bad, tea is considered a healthy, hot beverage. And so if even a company for a hundred years as tea growers, we have decided to say that, you know, there are amazing places that grow turmeric right next to Addabarie tea estate. And that is a high curcumin level. Frankly, we are not inventing any herb. All the herbs that we are using are the ones that people for hundreds of years know are good for you. So whether it’s turmeric, whether it’s ashwagandha, whether it’s tulsi, whether it is masala chai, lavender, all of these are well-known herbs. But my goal is to source as much as it locally, whether from our own estate or by using farmers near our estate. So African rose from Rwanda, turmeric from Addabarie, we are using Himsagar mangoes, and Gondhoraj Lebu… all these things which are part of our culture. And so nothing that is just pure flavor, these are herbs.

    And along with that, we’ve obviously started our website, and one of the focuses is on the estate. And that’s why we call it Luxmi Estates. We are Luxmi Tea Company, that’s the official name of the company, but the brand is Luxmi Estates because I want to say that these teas are from estates. These teas haven’t been bought by someone and packed and sold.

    The second aspect is using the hand to say our Lakshmi (Hindu goddess of wealth) is the plucker, and it’s her hand. When I think about the issues in the plantation sector of the tea industry, I think a lot of it is solvable. I’ve said that in an interview with you before if we can sell the tea if I can say that part of the revenue – and that part should keep going up – will go to getting a good impact on the farm. We’ve spent more than ten crore on education within the tea estates (a crore is 10 million rupees, approximately $125,000 in US dollars). We do not have the budget to keep going higher unless we find another source of revenue. So I think all of it comes together, the monocultural aspect, the freshness of the tea, and the lives of workers. I’m quite confident that we will succeed. The reason is, who doesn’t want a better product, fresher, at a fair price? You’ll see the prices are good, and the tea is nicely packaged. And we are not trying to reinvent what is good for you. You know what is good for you. You know turmeric is good for you; you know tulsi is good for you. We will find the best source of it; that is what we are good at – going to the farm and creating the best source, making sure it’s vacuum packed, and it’s shipped to you very quickly. And that’s one reason why we – because we are starting in the winter – we started with the herbal teas. We will add some of the regular teas also, but we wanted to start the regular teas during the first flush and the herbal teas now because this is the time for this kind of herb. So that’s my long overview of what we are trying to do.

    Aravinda: When we last spoke, it was also about how you were excited by the conversations you were having with the consumers via social media and the interaction that you were having. And that has really sort of driven a whole shift, isn’t it, in how you’re looking at retail, how you’re looking at direct-to-consumer and all of that?

    Rudra: Absolutely. The most important thing is the difference between selling to an invisible hand. You see the prices on the screen, but you hardly know who’s buying, and you don’t know how many steps it will go before the consumer comes. And I had said, I think at that time, even if we can sell 1% of our teas to consumers, we know and hear their opinion and what they like and what they don’t like. It’s great to hear from customers who love that Rugabano* is bright and that it steeps at three minutes, instead of four minutes. And that carries on to this conversation about turmeric and whether green tea will go with it.

    I’m open to experimentation. Only I am enough of a purist not to add raspberry flavor or something through the tea because I like the tea as it is. But if it is something that goes with green tea, one plus one is greater than two as it adds something and makes it easily accessible to the customer, and I know that the money is going back to the farm. It is not being taken away from the farm. This is good for the industry. Whether it’s ginger that is produced in Assam, the oranges and lemongrass of Makaibari, or Addabarie for ginger, there’s never the damage that monocultural crops extend to the tea estate. So it’s very good to have many other things along with tea and create other income streams, whether from flowers, honey, or herbs for workers. Like we did, we are doing homestays in the tea estate.

    This needs an imaginative solution. It is not a competitive solution. And it’s something that I would welcome everybody to. Because it’s something that we should all do — I’m not saying there should be one big brand — but there should be several big brands. But all of them should be fresh from the farm to the consumer.

    Aravinda: How big is retail a part of what Luxmi does now, and what are you expecting to see? And also the addition of the herbal teas themselves. Where did that come from? Was it the whole fallout of covid when the demand for such a kind of tea increased? Or was it that you had access to all these herbs and spices and all of that, and it just made sense to venture into that space? So what was the thinking behind that? 

    Rudra: A couple of things. One is even much before Covid; growing up on a tea farm, I’m very keen on different kinds of food. So I get like honey from one estate, I get ginger and turmeric, I get red rice, I get peppercorn. So I’ve never thought that tea estates only produced tea. One is the commercial aspect of it, but there are many others. Certainly, during Covid, one thing that changed was I spent all the time in the estate, not in the city, a little bit in Mirzapur, but mostly in the tea estates. In some ways, it was a far more open interaction with everyone there.

    Secondly, I think it’s clear, while, you know, people were coming and staying in Makaibari, I could see consumers of Makaibari staying in Makaibari and telling me things that, Why aren’t you doing, you know, mango with this and why aren’t you doing… And we started selling it in Taj, and then we started selling it at the Bagdogra Airport.

    From that sample set of few people, it was clear that this is certainly something that customers appreciate. You asked about the percentage of the business; I don’t think I don’t want this to be that all the teas that Luxmi makes should get into our own packages. Not at all. We will continue selling through traditional channels, and we will sell at auctions. We are very, as I said, very grateful for the business. And our prices have also been fine. You might have seen the Assam prices, the Rwanda, and Gisovu. Rugabano is number one and number two in all of Africa. Whether it is Makaibari or the Moran estates, all these are making very, very good teas. But it’s important to think of this as a sustainable solution for the long term. I don’t see why we will not go straight to the consumers with some of the teas. People will mostly continue buying tea from supermarkets, but some might care about something different and something they really care about, and they might want to subscribe to the tea. If they really like strong Upper Assam, they might subscribe to it from us.

    So that’s the thought. It’s still evolving, by the way. I can’t say that I’ve figured this out. It’s evolving, and I’m open to customer input and review. The challenge is whether I can ensure we are not weak in the product’s packaging or delivery. Because sometimes it’s so rustic when you do something from the farm. The package doesn’t open properly; it’s dripping or something. I don’t want that. I want people to say, okay, this is a world-class company making a world-class product, but with all the pluses of coming straight from the farm.

    Aravinda: What has been the response of the people on your estates – the factory and the fields?

    Rudra: Fantastic. I mentioned to you last time that tea planters love talking to people, as you know, you’ve spoken to many of them. So this has given us a whole new set of conversations. And people compete about customer reviews and what they like and, and if there is one review on one website, you’ll see a tea estate manager like taking a photograph of it and WhatsApping it to everybody saying, this is the comment from this customer.

    It’s actually great. Also, the more you put sunlight on work conditions in the tea estate, the more change you will get. And it is important that consumers understand there’s a cost to doing it. The money does not come from anyone other than customers. When you’re making the product, every penny we spend on everything comes from the customers who buy our tea, So we would like to make some special tea for really discerning customers, and hopefully, that’ll pay for some better facilities and infrastructure other than introducing the customer to a great product.

    Aravinda: So when you look at the Indian industry scenario itself today, given the kind of changes you’ve brought into Luxmi, whether it’s in product innovation, whether it’s in going direct to consumer and in tourism itself, what would you like to see as far as changes in the industry itself go? What do you think it needs in terms of solutions?

    Rudra: As a business student, businesses do well when forced to the world and innovate. And tea industry is in such a position today. We have been pushed into the world the way we worked over the last 50 years is clearly not working. Crops are coming down. Climate change is adding costs. There have been incredibly hot days this summer, and then we are having a lot of rain towards the end of the season.

    Now tea was an industry that loved routine. Wake up at 5.30 in the morning, go out in the estate, get the plucking rounds in seven days, pack the tea and forget about it, and go back next week. That’s not going to work anymore. You have to keep the discipline of the routine, but you have to add the willingness to change whatever you were doing every now and then. But that’s how, that’s how most of the industry is. That’s how most other industries are. There needs to be some radical changes. For example, I do think that the government and industry should work together and replant forests in some of the tea states, we cannot have this incredibly monocultural environment. And with lot of the forests having gone, the pests have increased, the climate has changed. So I think, there has to be an incentive to do that, from the government. But there can be some earning out of the forests, whether it is from timber or from honey or from fruit or whatever it is.

    And, we’ll have to innovate. Like one of the things I always say is we need more women in the industry, living in the tea estates and just rethinking how this business is done. It has been done the same way since maybe the late 1800s and 1900s. There have been some changes. CTC has come, and some others, but the changes have been few and far between. It is important to realize that the industry can provide jobs if it succeeds. And it is important for everybody to want the industry’s success, not just say that we don’t care about the industry’s success. We just want the entitlements out of the industry. That does not work, and that cannot work. I think it’s a big concern when you see many big companies that have been fantastic in their history and how they haven’t been able to continue. These were well-run companies with well-run management, but the 21st-century challenges are new.

    Aravinda: I hear a lot of planters say that we’ll do everything you’re asking of us, but it has to be financially sustainable

    Rudra: It’s our job to make it financially sustainable. But it’s also our job to think as management, not just ask someone to solve the problems. Every management has a responsibility to keep the business successful, and it cannot be outsourced to anybody.

    Aravinda: In your opinion, how has the Indian consumer changed? How has consumption changed, and how has the branding of tea within the Indian market itself? What have you seen change? 

    Rudra: I think tea is the best product in the world to sell online. Five reasons.

    Number one is it’s a habitual product, so that you can subscribe to it. It’s a food product, so you can’t return it. It’s high value to weight product. It is a product you can gift, and it’s a product that doesn’t matter what your religion is or how old you are; it’s a good-for-you product. It’s a healthy product.

    Maybe coffee also is an equally good product but, our advantage is that tea has many more varieties. So in terms of being able to have many SKUs, small MOQs is an advantage that tea has over coffee online.

    The fresher the product, the better it is. So, not only online, but online straight from the farm.

    And also, by the way, it’s the most consumed product in the world when it comes to, you know, the daily consumption of any one product more than salt or anything. So all of that together, it is a product that will make a lot of sense online. But now the thing is, it may evolve significantly. Maybe the last mile may not be online or some other aspects, but I think producers thinking about it are doing the right thing. Many of us will succeed, and many of us won’t. But I think the journey, the trajectory of this business, is to take this business from being treated like a commodity to a very personalized product.

    See Luxmi Tea Now Available Online

    Luxmi Tea is the official name of the company but the brand is Luxmi Estates because I want to say that these teas are from estates. These teas haven’t been bought by someone and packed and sold.

    — Rudra Chatterjee

    Aravinda: Right. And in the context of Indian tea, what do you think brand India tea needs right now?

    Rudra: Number one: Why isn’t Indian tea available outside India? When I travel abroad, I rarely see packages with Indian tea on them. You see Italian olive oil and Swiss chocolates.

    Now you also see cheeses from around the world, but why don’t you see Indian tea? I think the key aspect is that certainly the supply chain to which Indian tea was sold.

    The tea’s been sold for a long time. Just like everything else changes, this will also change, and we just have to figure out how it will be. It’s not going to be necessarily the same.

    The positive side is there’s this notion that I used to hear that young people don’t drink tea. That’s not true. I don’t know why that gained any credence. I think young people are reducing the consumption of alcohol and sugar drinks, and they’re reducing the consumption of plastic bottles and all of that. Tea is agnostic between hot and cold. Like I tried this 24-hour steep silver tips imperial from Darjeeling, the best tea I’ve had in a long time. And it’s completely different from the tea I usually have, but if it’s great Darjeeling tea, it’ll taste great if you let it bloom and evolve in the right way.

    Aravinda: In the context of the larger industry, how do you view the domestic market, and how do you think we can make those connections between the Indian consumers and the Indian tea producers stronger and more effective?

    Rudra: I think it has to be through various ways. And there’s not one Indian consumer; there’s not one Indian producer. There are going to be different kinds of Indian consumers and different kinds of Indian producers. There’s one thing that is generally true about the Indian consumer; they will go after authenticity and good value. They will go after freshness, which we need to drive at.

    In terms of Indian producers, good tea is appreciated. Every year we can see that. The price difference between the best and the rest of the best and the top decile versus the bottom decile is a V-shaped curve. So that is saying something. And we have to hear what the customer’s saying and then decide what resources do we have to take action to meet the customer’s requirement. There are all kinds of customers for all kinds of producers, so we just have to keep the right connection.

    *The Rugabano Tea Factory is located in the Karongi district in Western Province, Rwanda.

    Luxmi Estate

    A Heritage of Taking the Path Less Traveled

    In 1912, when the tea industry was predominantly British, PC Chatterjee founded Luxmi Tea as an Indian movement for self-reliance.

    Tea making was characteristically British at the time — sola toupees, burra sahebs, and sundowners. Luxmi was born out of PC Chatterjee’s quest to make Indian tea a tool in the Satyagraha movement and to break the British monopoly.

    With a tract of land in Tripura to his name, he began cultivating tea independently, without management agencies or advisors from London. Little did he know the extraordinary legacy he would create and set into motion with Luxmi.

    Other members of the Indian freedom movement — Assamese and Bengali students who rebelled against British rule, joined his company, then called Indian Tea and Provisions. What started as an expression of freedom from the British Raj has now come to stand for the freedom of spirit.

    — Luxmi Tea Company

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    Rudra Chatterjee
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