How Chai Box Founder Monica Sunny Turned a Family Ritual Into a Booming Atlanta Business
Atlanta’s first dedicated chai shop opens in June.
A messy stove comes with the territory when you live and breathe chai. Tea leaves scatter, milk spills, but Monica Sunny, founder of The Chai Box, doesn’t mind. Every morning, she reaches for her masala dabba—a steel tin filled with spices like cardamom, cloves, and fennel seed in separate compartments—and begins again the ritual she's been performing since she was nine years old. For the uninitiated, chai means tea in Hindi. In the United States, buying tea bags and steeping them in hot water is the typical way to prepare tea, but in India, making chai requires boiling whole tea leaves and spices in water (or milk, or sometimes a combination of both) before sweetening with sugar.
Sunny founded The Chai Box in 2017 as an online shop selling the eponymous box, an all-in-one collection of tea and spices for crafting a unique cup of chai. Since then, it's grown into selling gift sets and several loose leaf blends of chai featuring ingredients found throughout India—like a rose petal and cardamom blend inspired by Hill Station in the Himalayan foothills and an homage to Kerala studded with coconut and mango—as well as concentrate for home use. Many local cafes like Sama and East Pole Coffee also use the concentrate for their chai lattes. And now, The Chai Box has expanded into a 4,000 square-foot production facility in Marietta, complete with a storefront that will debut in June as Atlanta's first dedicated chai shop.
Sunny never planned to sell chai. Prior to 2017, the mother of three sons worked as a human performance consultant for corporations. A combination of not being able to find the chai she liked at coffee shops—“I’ve seen too much shitty chai,” says Sunny—and encouragement from friends who admired her masala dabba pushed her to start her business. While she has no desire to run a cafe, Sunny does plan to host tastings and special events like DIY tea blending in the new retail space.
Misconceptions around chai abound in the United States. Corporate coffee shops sell chai that Sunny considers to be over-spiced and over-sugared. And then there’s the cardinal sin: calling it “chai tea” (again, chai means tea). Sunny’s realization that you can’t buy a good cup of chai while out was a driving force in the early days of starting her business. If people can’t buy a good cup of chai, then they should be equipped to make the best cup possible at home. So she started Chai Box as a side hustle that sold chai online only. In doing so, she was able to reclaim a piece of her culture that is so often appropriated.
As a little girl in Punjab, India, Sunny would watch her grandfather and mother make chai at 5 am. “At that time I didn't realize, but it was really taking time for themselves. They were just having that me time, which I've kind of taken on,” says Sunny. When the family moved to Atlanta in 1984, her parents left the house early for work, and it was up to her to continue the morning ritual. Just like they did, she selects spices based on her mood and crushes them before placing them in a pot of boiling water, followed by adding tea leaves (like Darjeeling) and milk; she then brings it to another boil (what she calls her signature double boil) before enjoying a cup alongside a piece of rusk.
She passed this ritual on to her three sons, who would have “chai time” with their mom every Friday after school. Eventually their friends, and their friends’ moms, would come over for playdates, and everyone would ask for the “chai box.” Sunny’s chai soon developed a reputation, but it wasn't until someone asked if they could order 50 boxes for gifts that Sunny realized that there was potential for a business.
Sunny wanted to approach her entrepreneurial journey with caution, and that included ensuring ethical sourcing. She and her family took a trip to Kerala, a state on India’s southwest coast, to meet with small-scale farmers. There are countless variations of chai in India that are influenced by the ingredients found throughout its diverse regions. In Punjab, where Sunny is from, you might find chai with prominent notes of fennel and ginger, while in Kashmir you’ll likely find chai with saffron. And, of course, there are highly personal interpretations.
“Everybody makes it differently. Every house makes it differently. Every family has their own way," explains Sunny. "Generations of like, 'My grandmother's recipe, or my aunt's recipe, or my dad's recipe.'"
Part of Chai Box’s success has to do with Sunny’s ability to reach Indian Americans through Instagram, where she shares her morning chai ritual. Followers have messaged her sharing how they show her Instagram stories to their parents and how touching it is to see something like that in America.“It’s nice," Sunny says. "That's not something that I was going for, but it started to be that."
College kids especially love her products, and Sunny has recently begun Zoom calls with South Asian communities in colleges to teach them how to make chai. “They are so used to having their moms or aunts or grandmothers making them chai,” she laughs.
At the end of the day, Sunny has made chai her life’s work, but for her, it all comes down to using it as an expression of love for her family. She developed the company's chai concentrate along with her son Ethan, a college student who now relies on it because he lives in a dorm without a stove.
The ultimate reward for Sunny: “He texted me saying: ‘Mom, this tastes amazing. We did a good job.’”