Farah Jesani of One Stripe Chai: Striving for a Damn Fine Cup of Chai
One of the newest products in the Pearl River Mart Foods family is One Stripe Chai, a line of delicious DIY chai blends. A Gold House Venture, One Stripe Chai was founded by Farah Jesani. We had the chance to chat with Farah about growing up in a entrepreneurial family, the intricacies of craft coffee, and her mission to introduce people to a real cup of chai.
Tell me a little about your childhood. Where did you grow up?
I was born and raised in Atlanta, GA and attended the University of Georgia for undergrad. After college I moved to New York for work. My parents are both Indian immigrants. They both grew up in Bombay and moved to NYC in their early 20s, literally right after they got married. They joke that it was their honeymoon, going to a place with more opportunities. It's kind of been their honeymoon that’s still going on. The first place I moved to in NYC was Queens, where my parents had lived so many years before, and it felt like such a full circle moment.
My parents struggled a lot like many immigrants who move here for a better life. I grew up watching my parents dabble in entrepreneurship. My mom owned a cafe at one point, and I would spend a lot of summers and weekends there during elementary and middle school. I'd write up the menu board and ring people up. My dad is an accountant. He started out working for other people, but then he set up his own office in the loft of our first home. His firm has grown a lot in the last two decades and now my mom works with him too. It’s been very interesting and inspiring watching his entrepreneurship journey through the years!
How did your parents feel when you started your own business?
There are three girls in my family, three sisters. My dad really wanted us to be self-sufficient, which was kind of unusual. In other families in my community, girls were not really expected to work before college. My dad wanted us to feel confident to make financial decisions and really understand the value of money and self-sufficiency, so I spent summers and winter breaks working in retail or call centers or just doing bookkeeping at my dad’s office. My dad always told me that there’s no feeling like being your own boss and if that was ever something I wanted to do, he would be supportive. Ideally, he would love for us sisters to run a business together, but that will never happen! [Laughs]
In New York I worked in insurance and then consulting which was fun in its own way. I got to travel a lot and learn how to navigate the corporate world. But after a while I started to wonder if it was really for me. I grew up in a family where having your own voice and your own opinion was highly encouraged. That doesn't necessarily work well in corporate America, though. I also started to wonder what type of impact I was making in these large corporations and with these large clients. The stress-to-impact or fulfillment ratio wasn’t where I wanted it to be. If I was going to work long nights or be really stressed out about work, I wanted it to be for something that was closer to my heart and where I had more impact.
I knew I wanted to do something on my own but didn't know what. In New York, I got really interested in specialty coffee and coffee shop life. At one point I was working from home a lot, and my apartment was tiny, so I used to work from coffeeshops. Every day I would travel to a new one. Then I started to wonder about things like why is my almond milk latte $8 while Folgers is super cheap? In the end, a coffee bean is just a coffee bean, right? Is “craft” pricing justified? I was also just fascinated by coffee shop culture and the idea that a coffee shop can be an incubator for new ideas, relationships, etc.
When I told my parents I was thinking of quitting my job and opening a coffee shop, my dad said we'll always support you but you've never worked in the service industry. We have and it's really hard. It's going to be hard work and you should be ready for that. You should learn what it entails before opening your own business, and make sure this is what you want to do.
What made you switch your focus from coffee to chai?
I took my parents’ concern about my never having worked in the service industry seriously and decided to spend a summer in Portland, OR to learn everything about the coffee world that I could. I became a barista and spent my free time learning about the industry and the roasting and sourcing world.
After a while, I realized that while I like coffee, I didn’t have a deep connection to it. I did come to understand the prices are justified for craft coffee and specialty shops are putting so much work into these cups of coffee. But at the same time, they were serving terrible chai. It was so disappointing to get spectacular coffee from a shop but get served incredibly mediocre chai. Often the chai I would order was watery, bland, or basically just a cup of sugar.
This was so disappointing because coffee shops are where a lot of Americans first try matcha or chai. That first experience will be how the customer views that product or drink. But how to get good chai to coffee shops? Traditional chai is brewed fresh on a stovetop, but most coffee shops don’t have kitchens or stove tops to do this. Additionally, cafes need products that can allow them to turn drinks around quickly. I realized this is why many cafes use powder or liquid mixes — because it saves time.
I thought this was a good opportunity to fill that gap because there weren’t many companies making high quality chai products for the cafe market. We launched our first product, a pre-brewed chai concentrate for coffee shops to make their chai lattes. It was a huge hit. Our focus was on high quality direct-sourced tea, organic spices that were ground fresh before brewing, and a balanced spicy and sweet flavor.
This was in 2018. Then in 2020 all our customers closed down overnight when all the shutdowns happened. I used this opportunity to launch products that weren't just for coffee shops but for the end consumer. Everyone was at home so it was a good time to teach them how to make chai in the traditional manner. We launched our first loose leaf chai blend, Chai Me At Home, that summer and have been adding new blends ever since!
Where does the name "One Stripe Chai" come from?
Our name comes from the idea of “earning your stripes.” When the company started, we were going back and forth with our concentrate recipe to try to find the perfect balance of sweet and spicy. When we finally landed on the perfect blend, we felt like we had earned one of our stripes. So "one stripe" came from that.
How many cups of chai do you drink a day?
Just one. Maybe two. I'm starting to realize that caffeine makes me a little jittery if I have too much of it. [Laughs] As a solution, we launched a chai blend called Chai After Five. Everyone kept asking for a caffeine-free chai blend. The reason you don't see a lot of decaf teas is that it's a really involved and expensive process that not all farms and tea producers can do.
We work with a farm in India that cultivates green tea, including a popular hojicha. It's often served to children and elders because the caffeine is very low. It's a mellow tea often drunk after dinner. We realized that hojicha, which has a nutty flavor profile, works well with chai. So we developed Chai After Five, a kind of an Indian hojicha.
What's a food or beverage city are you looking forward to visiting again?
Mumbai. There’s just so much delicious food I love every time we go to India. We're always eating and It's always delicious. Whether you go to high end restaurants or get street food, it’s always really good and innovative.
What are you obsessed with right now?
We spent some time in Southeast Asia this summer, and since we've been back, I've been trying to find really good Indonesian food all the time. We found a place in LA called Simpang Asia that is really good! We’ve been ordering it a lot recently…in fact we just went there last night!
What do you hope people think when they see One Stripe Chai?
I want people to know One Stripe as a fun and approachable South Asian beverage brand. At the end of the day, we want to showcase flavors that reflect our heritage, but want to do this in a manner that is playful and educational. There is a fine line between authenticity and innovation and that’s where we want to live!
One Stripe Chai’s Chai Me At Home, Gulab City Rose Chai, It’s Haldi, Doodhi! Turmeric, Asli Assam CTC Black Tea blends are available at Pearl River Mart Foods in Chelsea Market and our website. Check out out other entrepreneur interviews.