To turn a family recipe into a successful business
Uppma Virdi is the only lawyer we know who moonlights as a Chai Walli - the name given to female chai vendors in her homeland of India. Chai Walli is also the name Uppma has given her unique blend of traditional chai tea that she is busy building into a successful brand.
Uppma describes the moments shared between friends over cups of tea as chai chats. The highlight of ours for this interview was easily the chai. It tastes nothing like the sugary mix served up in urban cafes and everything that you would expect to drink on the streets of Mumbai. We drank the decaffeinated blend as it was early evening, but Uppma also has a stronger brew to wake up on these chilly Melbourne mornings.
We hope you enjoy our chat.
Where did you get the idea for Chai Walli?
Chai Walli wasn’t one of those magical light bulb moments where I thought of a cool new business idea. Chai has always been a part of my life. It’s something so inherent to me, so ingrained into my Indian culture. Making it is an art that many Indians can do blindly because it’s practised every day. The recipes have been passed down generations and it probably flows through our veins.
My grandad is a natural medicine doctor with a background in Ayurveda. From him I learned how to balance spices, how to have spices seasonally and the remedial properties of different spices. My Grandad was the first father in his village to send his daughter to get a higher education so she could also become a doctor. He then opened up a medical dispensary in his village in Punjab where he sold herbal and spice concoctions. He was known mostly for his remedial chai blends that he used hand-blend and sell at his dispensary
Inspired by my Grandad, I have always been fascinated with chai and spices. Every day I make chai for myself and family and friends. I try to perfect the art form further and develop new flavour notes while still staying true to the traditional flavours.
I never travel without chai. Even when I studied law in Austria I would make a pot of chai for my roomies as pre-drinks before a night out and post-drinks after a night out. When I went backpacking around Europe I took my spices with me and made chai in hostels. Chai was my way of communicating with strangers and making new friends. The fragrant smells brought people into the kitchen. I would talk to them about chai, share a cup with them and talk about our travels.
When I came back to Melbourne I was reunited with great coffee but not so great chai. Frustrated, I decided to help revolutionise the way Melbournians looked at chai.
Melbourne offers the best coffee, food and culture in the world. Melbourne’s diversity and authenticity never ceases to amaze me. But one that thing that deserves more respect is chai. Chai has its own place, separate to coffee. It has depth and complex flavour notes that need to be subtle without being overpowering.
A lot of cafes I’ve met with will try to brew my chai on their coffee machine and I just think ‘a coffee machine is made for coffee, not for chai’. Chai needs its own space and respect. The one billion people in India don’t cut corners when making chai every day, multiple times a day, so why should we?
Coffee has specific ways of being roasted, ground and made according to the coffee type. Chai also has its own process of being made and that is the art of making chai.
What do you hope to teach people about chai?
I want my customers to experience the art of making chai. The process of making chai in your kitchen on your stovetop is somewhat addictive. I want people to have this experience.
Chai is a vital part of the Indian culture and is ingrained in the Indian lifestyle. India runs on chai. There are chai stands everywhere in India and people drink chai 2-4 times a day. Chai is a daily ritual and is made for any and every occasion. It symbolises community, culture and togetherness. It’s something very significant to the Indian culture.
When chai is made authentically it tastes incredible. I never thought of creating chai into something more than an experience out of my kitchen, but I had a moment where I realised that I needed to share my deep-rooted knowledge of spices passed down by my grandfather and educate the market on what authentic chai is.
Is there any relationship between being a lawyer and running Chai Walli? Are there elements of either that come in handy while doing the other?
It’s such a paradox to call myself a chai-making-lawyer. By working part-time on Chai Walli and part-time as a lawyer I’ve developed a deep relationship between them both.
Being a lawyer means I can save on any legal costs involved in running a business. I’m basically my own in-house counsel which is pretty cool. The first thing I did when I started Chai Walli was go through the legal formalities of registering and protecting my IP through trademarks.
On the other hand, I’ve learnt entrepreneurial skills through my business which I apply in my legal career. I get shit done, I’m organised, I’ve got marketing skills and, most importantly, I understand the amount of effort that goes into running a business.
What has running Chai Walli taught you?
I believe everything good should be shared. We need to take risks and dive into those scary waters where our dreams are, where our passions are waiting for us to share. It’s time we went against the social norms and take our future into our hands. We can’t rely on hope to make things happen – we need to make it happen ourselves.
What other advice to you have for small business?
It is hard work. But it’s worth it. Things go wrong all the time, but remember to let it go and celebrate each little and big achievement.
It is easy to get swayed from your purpose, and as important it is to listen to other people, it’s more important to listen to yourself.
It is also important to not look at your competitors as enemies, you could be missing out on a great friendship or collaboration with people who are passionate about something as much as you are (which is rare to find)!
Finally, know what you’re good at and what you’re terribly bad at and then delegate - I still need to keep telling myself this!
Uppma's recommendations for chai in Melbourne: