Meet Amuleek Singh Bijral, Chaiwallah from Harvard, & Savour the Chai Point Success Story
India’s First Tea Chain Banks on Sustainability, Systems & Sexing Up Its F&B Menu
AMULEEK SINGH BIJRAL discovered the power of the chaiwallah much before Prime Minister Narendra Modi. When he was an MBA student at Harvard Business School, Bijral was bitten by the entrepreneurial bug and his class project, which he refined under the redoubtable economist Tarun Khanna, has grown into a mega success story named Chai Point.
There’s nothing remotely F&B about the soft-spoken and suave Bijral. The son of an IPS officer, he was born in Baramulla, Jammu & Kashmir, and grew up across the state (including two years in Kargil), studied electrical engineering in Punjab, worked at TCS, moved to Microsoft as a developer in Hyderabad, got an MBA at Harvard, and then came back home to head an information security company. “Even now, I talk software more than chai in office,” Bijral, Founder-CEO Mountain Trail Foods, said at the launch of Chai Point’s flagship store with a smart new brand identity at the newly opened DLF Mall of India, Sector-18, Noida.
The IT back-end of Chai Point has been critical to its stupendous success (launched in 2010 in Bangalore, India’s first multi-city tea-and-snacks chain has grown to 92, and counting, stores today with two rounds of capital infusions backed by the masters of the game, Ash Lilani and Deepak Shahdadpuri). How else does a rapidly growing company keep track of 1.6 lakh cups of tea it sells every day, or the 6.5 tons of tea leaves it purchases every month (primarily Assam, followed by Darjeeling and a negligible amount of the Nilgiris), along with 2.5 lakh litres of milk, 25 tons of sugar, and five tons of ginger?
“We get information of a dynamic basis,” Bijral said, noting that this is the key to achieving the chain’s stated objective of delivering a “consistently natural product”. Consistency is easier said than done. How does one ensure, for instance, that each Chai Point store gets its share of 75 gms of ginger cut and packed together (80,000 packs in a month), and transported from Himachal Pradesh or Kerala to seven cities, to make batches of two litres of the chain’s most popular item, ginger chai?
The easier way out would have been to use mass-produced ginger and lime juice, but Bijral insists on each cup of chai being made with freshly crushed ginger and freshly squeezed lemon. “Indian consumers are getting more and more mindful of their health, so we have to be a responsible brand from the health standpoint,” Bijral said. It is this concern that makes Chai Point use, for instance, sulphur-free sugar and electrical bikes for deliveries, and give away its used tea leaves to farmers in Bangalore to encourage them to make natural manure.
To make the gargantuan logistics work, Bijral has to spend a lot of time with his 12-member software team, but to translate his vision on the ground, he has put together a team comprising tea guru Viveck Crishna, former vice-chairman and managing director of the country’s largest auction house, J.M. Thomas & Co.; Chief Operating Officer Sandesh C. (ex-Bain Capital); Head of Supply Chain Yaduvir Singh (ex-Costa/Barista); Head of Products Amit Arora (ex-Domino’s), who’s busy developing a new range of beverages and food products after already giving us beauties such as Green Chai Lemonade and Spicy Mango Iced Chai; and Head of Customer Experience and People Excellence Diksha Pande (ex-Oberoi/Yum! Restaurants International).
Their biggest success, however, has been in hot chai delivery in sleek paper board flasks with a Bisphenol A (BPA)-free plastic pouch developed by a pharma company inside. The chai flasks come in three sizes — 10 cups (1 litre), five cups (500 ml) and two cups (250 ml). “We are the first company in the country to deliver hot beverages,” COO Sandesh declared. “We moved in this direction because we realised that the chai business is fundamentally a delivery business.”
Chai Point today is clocking 1,000 deliveries a day, mainly to corporate clients, and the numbers are growing by 20 per cent, month on month. More importantly, the chai maintains its temperature of 85 degrees C for at least 45 minutes to an hour.
Next on Chai Point’s agenda is to look beyond its existing food and beverage offerings. It has recently launched the well-received Spicy Mango Iced Chai and Green Chai Lemonade. Next on the cards are the Pan- and Tiramisu-flavoured shakes, which will be rolled out on April 27; Sichuan Samosa and Achari Soya Keema Puff will join the current favourites — Banana Cake, Samosas, Paneer Puff and Omelette Pav — on April 7.
“At Chai Point, chai is the hero. We now want food to make it the bigger hero,” COO Sandesh C. said as I was checking out some out-of-the-box items — Haleem Puffs and Buutter Chicken Samosa — that Chai Point proposes to add to its menu eventually.
Summing up the daily challenges of running the back end of such a complex national operation based on natural products, Sandesh asked a rhetorical question: “How do we ensure our ginger tea tastes the same everywhere?” It may not be possible across the country because of the quality of the water and the taste of the ginger used (the one from Himachal does taste different from the one from Kerala), but across outlets within a city, Sandesh said, “I can take up a consistency challenge.”
Mumbai, where Chai Point has made a beginning at T2, according to Bijral, is the company’s “next big frontier.” Driving this expansion is Bijral’s belief that “chai must not become a fad, but a habit”. Despite the inroads made by the coffee culture, Bijral pointed out, for every cup of coffee Indians drink, 70 cups of chai gets consumed in the country. Bijral knows he has only scratched the surface and the growth potential is humongous.
Sweeping a hand across the vast expanse of the Mall of India, Bijral said, “This place will have 450 retail outlets when it will become fully operational and their employees will need chai every day. I am surrounded by my customers.” He’ll be happiest, though, when his average customer has tea at a Chai Point outlet, or orders in, at least three times a day. Finding a market is the least of Chai Point’s worries.