Why Farah Jesani Is on a Mission to Make Chai as Popular as Coffee in the U.S.
One Stripe Chai Co.’s founder on how she built her own chai company and the must-haves for making the perfect cup.
Like many of us, Farah Jesani is a big fan of coffee. So much that she even quit her consulting job in New York and moved to Portland to learn more about the coffee industry. Little did she know that the journey would ultimately inspire her to launch her own chai company instead.
Growing up in Atlanta as a child of Indian immigrants, Jesani saw chai as an “adult drink” that everyone drank while hanging out with friends in community gatherings and at home. Although she liked drinking chai, coffee became her go-to drink and the only thing she would order at cafés. But one day, she decided to try and order chai instead. In her mind, since cafés paid a lot of attention to the way they make their coffee drinks, she thought they would put the same amount of detail into her chai. But they didn’t. She quickly realized that most cafés and coffee shops didn’t have the proper gear to make it, and she wanted to change that. “So that's [when I thought], ‘Can we make a better version that still is quick and easy for a barista to use?’" That’s why she started One Stripe Chai Co., a company that sells chai concentrates and blends for professionals and amateurs alike.
We recently spoke with Jesani about how she launched her company, what it taught her about her culture, how she pivoted her business during the pandemic, and why she thinks everyone should be drinking more chai.
Thrillist: What’s your first memory with chai?
Farah Jesani: When I was little, we weren't really allowed to drink chai because it was a hot beverage with caffeine in it, and it was like that drink that everyone thinks of as the "adult drink." When I think I was around five or six, my mom let me have a little bit of chai, just a really tiny amount so I could feel like I was a part. We had this amber cup and saucer, I still remember, and she would give me a little bit, a quarter maybe, of hot chai in there. The way a lot of kids, and even parents, drink chai is that you pour it into the saucer, and that helps it kind of cool down, and you kind of slurp it up from the saucer.
I always really liked chai. Not only did we have it around at home, but at my mosque, every Friday we would have chai. So it was not so much that it was like, "I love the taste so much and I'm addicted to it." It was really, it's so much around social things that it's just fun to be a part of. I remember even at mosque on Fridays, you just kind of want to get the chai, and get the biscuits, and you want to hang out with your friends and do what all the adults are doing, hanging out and socializing.
What inspired you to create your own chai brand?
Jesani: I was working in tech consulting in New York before One Stripe, and I was getting really interested in just coffee culture in general, this whole idea of specialty coffee. When I was a kid, the only coffee I had really experienced—because we didn't drink it at home—was when we'd go on road trips, we stopped at a gas station along the way and I would get "cappuccinos" from those [coffee] machines. So it was interesting when I was older and craft coffee was becoming so popular, it was just so much more expensive than what you get at the gas station or at the bodega.
I [became] interested in learning more and being a part of the coffee industry and spent some time in Portland, which is a great coffee city, to learn about it. I wondered "What does roasting coffee look like? Why is it so expensive? What does single origin mean?” I started realizing that all these companies that really care about the coffee they serve, and pay a lot of attention to all the details around coffee, were all serving chai that didn't taste good. When I realized that, it was exciting because it was like, "Well, this is something I know about, and I have a relationship with, and I care about it." So that's [when I thought], "Can we make a better version that still is quick and easy for a barista to use?" So that's where the idea of One Stripe Chai came from.
How would you describe a good cup of chai for people who haven’t tried it yet?
Jesani: I will say that chai is one of those things where there is no one recipe. Every family has their own. The way my mom makes chai is different from how my grandfather makes chai, it is different from how my aunt makes chai. Everybody has their own go-to spices, some people will toast their spices ahead of time, some people are big on using whole spices, some people have to grind them, some people buy pre-ground spices, some people won't put any spices. I typically like mine with a little bit of cinnamon and black pepper for spice, and cardamom. But what I did realize is that chai is basically black tea, milk, spices, and sweetener, but the thing about it that makes it different from just regular tea is that you're boiling all of that and cooking it together. So it's important to use a tea that can stand up to that. A lot of the chais I was seeing out there weren't really tasting that strong or robust, probably because whoever was creating them wasn't using the right type of tea.
What makes One Stripe Chai special?
Jesani: For me, it was really important that we were using the right type of tea. There's a process of producing Indian black tea that basically started in India, where your tea ends up being kind of a granular tea. It tastes very robust and you get a very dark color. That tea, you can boil it with milk and with spices, and it'll stand up to it. I felt like a lot of people tended to just put a lot of cinnamon in their chai. I don't think cinnamon's really that traditional, it's pretty rare that you see people using cinnamon in chai. I think it might be a little bit more of a Western thing. Most people I knew used cardamom, so I was like, "I want this to be a nice cardamom-heavy one, and I want the first one that we come out with to be a little spicy, so I want to make sure we have black pepper in there." So it was a lot of recalling what my experience with chai had been at home and kind of bringing that into our products.
How has starting a chai company helped you connect with your culture?
Jesani: I very quickly realized that, for me being an Indian Muslim female, and India having such an interesting history—especially in the last few hundred years—this was a great opportunity for me to selfishly learn a lot more about my identity through this company. We tend to think of chai as this centuries-old ancient drink that's been around forever. What I realized early on was that chai has not been around in India forever because tea didn't grow in India. It was something that was brought by the British when they had colonized India. I think [them] being in India had so many repercussions on socioeconomic and cultural things, and just the whole idea of them getting partitioned into different countries after they gained independence, all of that has left such a lasting impact on us even today. Just getting to work with tea has been so interesting and educational for me to learn about.
The farm partners that we work with are fourth generation farm owners. So it's been really cool to be able to ask them questions like, "Well, how did your great-grandfather even start in the industry? How did a lot of these tea farms get passed from the British to actual Indian people? How did they even get established?" There's so much history around it and it's been really interesting.
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What prompted you to expand beyond coffee shops, and make it available directly to consumers?
When we started, we created a concentrate, which is not a traditional way of drinking chai at all. We did that because coffee shops don't typically have stoves or kitchens, so they're not really able to get a pot and properly brew a chai. Coffee shops are very quick places with long lines, so you want to have an easy way to serve this product. But I really did also, at some point, want to teach people how to make chai in a more traditional way. I just didn't have the time then to do something in that realm until the pandemic started, when basically all of our coffee shop customers closed overnight. I didn't really have a choice, and it was kind of an interesting time because everyone wanted to try new products, they wanted to learn how to make things at home. It was such a great opportunity for us to launch these loose leaf tea blends. Our first blend is called the Chai Me At Home—a fresh bag that already has everything people need, with simple instructions, to make a freshly brewed chai at home.
What does your chai ritual look like? What tools and accessories do you use?
I love drinking out of ceramic cups that don't have any handles on them. They're kind of reminiscent of chai, street-side in India. You kind of get this image of these little clay cups called kulhars, and they don't have handles on them. But I think chai can be enjoyed in any type of vessel. When I was younger at mosque, all my memories were styrofoam cups, which rightfully nobody uses anymore, but that was my experience. It was styrofoam cups full of piping hot chai and we're dipping crackers and biscuits into them.
The only thing that you really need at home is a strainer. There's a type of strainer that is more proper for chai, and since not everybody necessarily has one at home, we started selling them on our website.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.