You say coffee, I say chai

New Delhi: There was a time when romance steamed as a boy asked his girl out for coffee, and brewed when her family invited him over for a cup of tea at their home.

But the script has changed. The humble chai has undergone a sophisticated makeover, moving out of kitchens and dhabas to specialised tea salons and cafes that don't just mean cold coffee and cappuccino.

Coffee may not be everybody's cup of tea, entrepreneurs have realised.

Outlets such as Chaayos, Chai Point, Chai Story and Chai Thela are giving stiff competition to coffee biggies like Starbucks and Cafe Coffee Day.

And though the jury is still out on whether elders have moved on from their home brewed 'kadak adrak' chai, the new chai stops are doing all that they can to woo the young.

"There was this impression that chai is something you get only at home. You had good places for coffee, but for chai there was either a thela or the substandard chai available in five-star hotels. We wanted to create a premium place for our customers...with chai just the way they like it," Raghav Verma, co-founder of Chaayos, told PTI.

When Chaayos started in 2012, there were some 100 tea places against the 2,000-2,500 cafes serving coffee in India.

But growth has been swift. In the last five years, Chaayos already has 40 outlets in Delhi, Chandigarh and Mumbai.

Kaushal Dugar, the founder of Teabox, an online direct- to-consumer tea brand, suggests Indians are on their way to being part of the ultimate tea experience -- which is not just a concoction of water, sugar and milk.

"Tea places will be taking away people away from coffee. But then sooner or later people will also migrate to pure tea such as Chamomile, Darjeeling or Assam," Dugar told PTI.

Elite hotel brands are also reading the tea leaves, realising that Indians are already learning to choose between Assam and Darjeeling, first flush and second flush.

The Courtyard by Marriott is one of those catching on to the tea trend. It has set up a new counter -- Masala Chai Specialist - at the Mumbai International Airport.

"Cafes and restaurants across India are enhancing the variety of their chai offerings. After this counter was set up, many of our regular visitors have switched from coffee to tea," said chef and counter in-charge Rajendra Dhuri.

"On a normal day, I end up making 20 litres of tea for customers," said Dhuri.

Wagh Bakri, the over 100-year-old tea making company, has also gone the lounge way.

"We opened these lounges for our brand promotion. We wanted to make people aware of our packaged tea. But we are doing pretty good with profits, too," said Neeraj, manager Wagh Bakri tea lounge, Connaught Place in New Delhi.

The company has over 10 tea lounges, while Teabox sells over 250 flavours of tea and Chaayos offers its patrons 1,200 personalised tea options.

"People can vary the tea leaves... choose more milk or less milk and so on," Verma said.

So are Indians okay doing chai pe kharcha?

"People are spending Rs 100-150 for the same experience in a coffee place. Here, we promise to serve your favourite tea at a lower price. So how is it expensive," asked Verma.

The cheapest chai at Chaayos costs around Rs 50, while a normal espresso in a coffee bar costs Rs 90-140.

With over 42 per cent repeat customers in Chaayos cafes, Verma said his brand is not in competition with coffee houses.

"The scope for chai is way higher than coffee's. Data suggest that for every coffee, 30 cups of chai are consumed in India," he said.

However, Keventers, an iconic milkshake brand since 1925, has a different take on the issue.

"Consumer behaviour shows that a customer would rather spend on a cup of coffee or a milkshake (more premium options) than on a cup of tea, especially when they are outdoors," Sohrab Sitaram, Director and CEO, Keventers, told PTI.

Cold coffee milkshake is one of the hot-selling items in Keventer's, and as of now they don't plan to extend their hot beverages segment.

That would disappoint Chandigarh resident Neha Jindal, who is now a frequent at tea bars.

"I have always been an ardent coffee lover. But with these new swanky chai places, I really don't mind ditching coffee. Also after many visits, I have started liking tea, which just wasn't the case earlier," she said.

With India one of the largest tea consuming and producing countries in the world, this was perhaps a transformation just waiting in the wings.

American giant Starbucks recently introduced its tea brand Teavana in 88 stores in India, indicating that the tea business is growing.

Probably it is time others too wake up and smell...not the coffee, obviously!

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