Chai Time with Ani Sanyal
By Yasmine Mohamed
LOWER EAST SIDE — Natural entrepreneur. For many first-generation Americans, entrepreneurship is thought of to be a fate that is reserved for those with the money-making gene. But is that really the case?
The Business Journals recorded more than 11 million minority-owned businesses in operation nationwide, nearly double the number of 10 years ago. However, although minority-owned businesses are on the rise, most minority entrepreneurs still face challenges that their white counterparts are able to avoid. Including lack of representation, confidence and investor support.
At Kolkata Chai Co., cultural differences are used as a strength instead of a weakness.
Ani Sanyal is the founder of the new cafe, Kolkata Chai Co., located in Manhattan’s East Village. The grand opening of Kolkata Chai Co. took place on September 18th, the turnout was unexpected; the line wrapped around the block.
Ani and his brother Ayan Sanyal aim to transport his customers to the streets of Kolkata, India with authentic spiced tea.
“My background is kind of crazy” Ani says. “I am the product of two immigrant parents from India. And for me, I just knew from a young age that I couldn’t really work for somebody else. I saw my dad got laid off a lot growing up and it was just this thing where I was like, it doesn’t make sense for someone else control your financial family’s future.”
So Ani started his own business, scratch that — businesses. From music to marketing, Ani and his brother do it all. He manages an artist named Anik Khan, runs a creative agency, and started a real estate investment group.
“My brother and I have been running a creative agency for the past five years and, our business was like super busy and like as a way to kind of get away from always being behind a computer my brother just started to experiment with Chai.” Ani says. “We had been to, you know, India, our whole childhood kind of back and forth and so Chai was a big part of our lives, but he just started like cooking it up in his room in his in his apartment started, you know, giving it to friends and family and kind of letting them taste it and then kind of like, just kept rolling from there”
Chai is a way of life in India. you’ll find chaiwallahs on almost every corner. They are vendors who specifically sell the sweet, spicy, milky beverage.
In America, “chai” has become known as a flavor of tea with predominantly cinnamon or cardamom elements. Ani and his brother Ayan noticed that there is a lack of authentic chai in New York, so… they decided to do something about it.
“Some of the most beautiful things in the world we found in Kolkata. And some of the most heartbreaking things in the world we found in Kolkata.” Ani says. “So when it came to like creating a space in New York City, it was like what better way to shed light on a place that’s meant so much to us that a lot of people don’t know about. just reclaiming that narrative of what our culture and what our food and what our people actually are like.”
Ani is motivated by the sacrifices his family has made to come to America, he also wants young people to know that it’s possible to live life on your own terms.
“For me especially, I grew up as like a brown kid in the 90s and it wasn’t cool to like own your culture. I was like “wow” you know, our food smells crazy, or like my mom was like, just like making me dress in all these like crazy outfits and I was like damn ma, this is not it.” Ani says.
“And I just remember being like, never been like super proud of like being where we’re where we were from. It took me like trips back home and just like spending time with my culture to understand how beautiful it really was.”
Ani sounds determined to challenge white-dominated spaces so that the next generation of kids like him don’t feel unwelcome.
“If we don’t start changing the conversation and changing what spaces look like. And take that responsibility ourselves, then things are not going to change, and every space or every venue or every all the infrastructure in this country is going to remain the same.” Ani says. “It’s going to be white-owned it’s going to be a space that we don’t have the ability to influence. Like you go to every co-working space around the country. It all looks the same.”
Another chai place called the Chai Spot opened last year (confirm) in lower manhattan, but Ani he doesn’t see competition. The Chai Spot, another chai place in lower manhattan is one that also sells a similar product; Ani explains why Kolkata Chai stands out from its competitors.
“I don’t think there’s competition.” Ani says, “We created a new category, how I see it, you have coffee shops you have all these things, but you don’t have places that serve authentic Chai exclusively that understands young millennial diasporic culture, there’s no place doing that.”
Noran Omar, a customer at Kolkata Chai, sits nearby writing a paper. I ask her what she thinks of the place.
To be honest, this place gives me such brown vibes, and I love it. Do you know what I mean? I mean the music, the scents, the ambiance it just takes me back to my cultural roots which I miss very much.
The brothers are anticipating future investments through content and collaborations. While mostly based in the Greater New York City area, Kolkata Chai Co. is anticipating expanding with pop-ups in L.A. and other markets in an effort to use chai as a means of connecting people across different generations and cultures.