After selling 4 million cups of tea in 5 years, this Kolkata-based brand is ready to win the offline market
After completing a bachelor’s in Chemical Engineering from RV College, Bengaluru, Atulit Chokhani started his career as an intern in Deloitte.
“You know when you pursue engineering, you are placed in an IT company. And, it wasn’t late enough I realised that IT is not my cup of tea. Hence, after completing my internship, I made my way back to my hometown in Assam to spend some time to figure out what I wanted to do,” Atulit tells SMBStory.
In 2012, he moved to Kolkata and started working with JM Wheels. However, Atulit still wasn’t satisfied with his work. The following year, he even entered the mining sector to excavate granite. But, due to changes in government policies, he had to call it quits.
Born into a family that has been in the tea business for many generations, the next step seemed like a no-brainer. However, a thought hit his mind – “What can you possibly add to a 150-year-old business?”
It all changed after a trip to the South African vineyards and Atulit, a sixth-generation tea planter, couldn’t think of a better opportunity than taking his legacy forward in a different way.
Thus, The Tea Shelf was born in January 2015.
Edited excerpts from the interview
SMBStory (SMBS): Tell us more about The Tea Shelf business.
Atulit Chokhani (AC): Born into a family that has been in the tea business for many generations and fuelled by a love for tea, it did not take me long to get into the fray.
The Tea Shelf is an idea to make premium loose leaf Indian teas available to all tea drinkers, worldwide, to create an awareness of the taste and quality of tea, to uplift tea from a regular beverage to a coveted drink, and to witness a shift from cooking tea to brewing it.
The brand has valuable experience derived from its family legacy in all areas concerning tea, with five tea estates in Upper Assam (Mahadeobari Tea Estate, Ananda-Bag Tea Estate, Dhola Tea Estate, Chokhani Tea Estate and Charali Tea Estate), a tea engineering unit (Bharat Engineering Works) to manufacture tea machinery, a state of the art blending and packaging unit in Kolkata, and Bulk tea wholesale and retail division, for the domestic and export market.
We started the brand with my savings of Rs 21 lakh and the company is bootstrapped until now. We are running the business in a traditional model with an innovative approach.
SMBS: What is the market size and how are you differentiating from the competition?
AC: The addressable market could be valued anywhere between Rs 6,000 crore to Rs 12,000 crore. While there are many companies who sell tea, but very few sell fresh, single estate (non-blended), loose-leaf, premium Indian teas.
If you go to a supermarket to buy some good Indian tea – a Nilgiri white tea, a black orthodox Assam or a Darjeeling first flush – and it’s not available, that’s where we, The Tea Shelf, want to come in.
Our strong background in tea puts us one step ahead, from sourcing garden fresh teas from the finest estates in India to curating in-house, exotic, hand-blended teas with a creative mix of natural infusions and quality teas.
Since launch, The Tea Shelf has sold four million cups, showcasing 109 varieties of exquisite teas, and reaching customers in the US, Netherlands, Guatemala, the UK, Germany, Singapore, Australia, amongst others.
We are catering to tea drinkers worldwide through our online tea store. Apart from our own website, we are retailing through a number of online marketplaces who have shown interest in listing our tea range.
We have selectively chosen our retail partners instead of going ahead with every market platform.
The Tea Shelf also commands a small presence in stores like Lavender Label in Kolkata, The Tailor’s Tale in Chennai, and Yasmin’s Bodyimage in Gurugram.
SMBS: What are the major challenges you have faced?
AC: The major challenge has been in delivering fresh tea to consumers. It was essential that all teas sourced are packaged and handled carefully.
This was overcome by storing teas in the correct dehumidified environment, having trained the staff to know how to handle tea. All the teas are vacuum packed to keep them fresh and fragrant.
The next challenge that we face is pricing. But we would like the quality of tea to speak for itself.
SMBS: What are your future plans?
AC: As of now, The Tea Shelf does not have a presence in offline space, and we have some exciting offerings coming up in this along with our own tea salons where every tea will be experienced as a coveted drink.
Edited by Javed Gaihlot