Alum of Business Operations – Chico Chai
Sarah Adams started small. In 2004, she began brewing tiny batches of fresh, traditional Indian masala chai on the stovetop for local coffeehouses and the farmers’ market in her hometown of Chico, CA.
Her business, Chico Chai, has slowly and steadily grown since then, and now supplies fresh chai to coffee houses and Natural Food Stores all over Northern California. To support her business growth, Sarah attended FCI’s Business Operations Module in 2016.
How did you become interested in starting a food business?
It probably started with my lemonade stand when I was little. We lived out in the country, so there wasn’t much traffic, but I worked with what I had. I made big signs and I recruited my little sisters to make a human pyramid to get attention when a car finally drove by. The lemonade was actually pretty delicious. I was able to see how my hard work and creative thinking would pay off, especially when I was selling a product I was proud of.
What was the moment you decided to start Chico Chai?
After college I moved back home to my hometown of Chico. I was working long hours six days a week, with a long commute and I didn’t have time to make chai at home. But I also couldn’t buy the kind of chai I wanted, something fresh, spicy and not too sweet. So I decided to try making chai for a living.
Tell me about Chico Chai. What is your business all about?
My business is about blending and brewing masala chai (spice tea) fresh, by hand, from whole spices and tea, the traditional way. We use no added flavors or extracts, and add just enough unrefined sugar to balance the intensity of the spices.
In recent history, commercial chai has often been fairly sweet and simple, often with added flavorings and preservatives, a chai of convenience over taste. We’re trying to change expectations about chai.
Who (or what) is your biggest food/business inspiration?
I just got back from a self-guided chai tour in India, and right now I’d have to say that my greatest inspiration is the chai wallahs on the streets of India. Some of the most delicious chai I’ve had is from a little cart or a big pot on the side of the road in Delhi, or Mumbai or Varanasi or Goa. Each chai wallah has their own special way of making masala chai, their own secret blend of spices, proportion of black tea and sugar, and different preparation methods. Essentially it’s all the same four basic categories of ingredients: spices, tea, milk, and sugar, but those are some pretty loose categories, so there’s plenty of room for the personality of the brewer to come out. I love the variety of flavor and the raw entrepreneurial spirit of setting up shop with a pot and cups on the side of the road.
How did FCI’s Business Operations Module help you to grow your business?
The class really affirmed some of what I had already started doing, and gave me a lot of direction in some of my weaker aspects of business, especially in financial analysis. My business has been heavily product-driven, which is important, but it’s also necessary to look at your business in a practical way, make sure that the practices are profitable and sustainably so.
What were the most helpful aspect of the FCI courses you took?
I really appreciated learning directly from food business owners with years of experience running successful food businesses. And the ability to ask specific questions about how they run their businesses was an additionally rare opportunity.
What do you envision the next year will bring for Chico Chai? The next 5 years?
This year we’ll be unveiling our ready-to-drink chai, in collaboration with Beber, a local almond milk company. In the next five years I’d love to expand to a larger production brewery, hopefully one with a retail aspect so customers can visit our site and taste chai straight from the source.
What have been the biggest obstacles you’ve encountered (before & after FCI)?
My previous challenges were all about learning the ropes of becoming a professional beverage manufacturer, how to make chai efficiently with consistency, and how to get it to market, literally and figuratively. My current challenges are more about scaling up those same original models and especially learning to delegate responsibility, to become an effective team leader.
What advice do you have for new food entrepreneurs starting out?
Be ready to change your plan. Planning is great, just be ready to change your exact vision of what you have in mind. Stay true to your ideals of quality and uniqueness, but be ready to adjust if your customers consistently say they want something presented in a different way or in a slightly different form. I’m a pretty stubborn person, and this usually serves me well, but at first it made me slow to alter my vision when necessary.
Learn more about Chico Chai by visiting their website.
If you’re interested in Business Operations, you’re in luck! Our next upcoming course is March 7 – 8. Visit our website or email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.