The 'Chai Sisters' seek to shake up Your Morning Brew Images & Words by dave carpenter

The Ebrahim Sisters are on a mission to share with Torontonians what a billion Indians already know - Chai trumps coffee when it comes to caffeinated beverages, and one you can enjoy all day.

View onto Harbord St. at Elchi Chai Shop. ©photo by Dave Carpenter

Sukaina and Sayyeda Ebrahim, of Indian heritage and raised in Brampton, Ont., opened Elchi Chai Shop on Harbord Street near the U of T campus 2 years ago, after seeing a gap in Toronto’s beverage market . “It’s a real coffee culture in North America. Yet, from our research, we found that up until the 1980s, tea and tea shops were still popular in Toronto, then they slowly started dropping off in the ’90s with Starbucks’ rise,” elder sister Sukaina Ebrahim says.

Chai in Toronto: A Deluded History...

Yet, the Ebrahims found inspiration in tea’s historic popularity in the city, and hatched an ambitious plan to put the beverage back on torontonians’ radar. You can find modern iterations of the traditional Indian drink throughout the city, with Starbucks’ chai tea latte leading the way. However, the sisters say most are distorted versions of the real thing that include a heavy doses of milk-based concentrates. Sukaina and Sayyeda offer the real-deal: traditional chai that contains richer, more complex flavours; the secret, they say, is adding more tea and applying traditional brewing methods.

“Chai isn’t a morning drink, but a hospitality drink. It’s a social drink with friends. It’s the first thing you offer guests in India and other Asian cultures.” -Sukaina Ebrahim, co-owner, Elchi Chai Shop.
Sukaina Ebrahim behind the counter at Elchi Chai Shop. facebook.com/elchichaishop ©photo by Dave Carpenter

The sisters have branded Chai as an any-time-of day tea, as is customary in India. “Chai isn’t a morning drink, but a hospitality drink. It’s a social drink with friends,” says Sukaina, the elder of the two. “It’s the first thing you offer guests in India and other Asian cultures.” Chai’s proven success in the Australian and UK hot beverage markets over the years also provided the Ebrahim sisters with the motivation to open their Harbord street shop, with a nudge from their straight-talking father who finally told his daughters to stop talking about opening it and just do it.

The benefits of Chai, artfully displayed at the Ebrahim sisters' shop. ©photo by Dave Carpenter

So they did, opening up Elchi Chai Shop on the north side of Harbord st. two years ago, with younger sister Sayyeda putting her graduate studies on hold, as well as Sukaina’s career in interior design, which shines through in the shops appealing decor. The two sisters have always been close and successfully worked together at a furniture business in the past, thus pretty confident they’d make good business partners.

Sukaina and Sayyeda say their working relationship has gone well so far but don’t hide the fact that getting even a small fraction of Torontonians to make the switch from beans to tea leaves, has proven more challenging than even they expected. With that, sisters offer some businesses advice that they wish they understood from the outset.

'The Chai Sisters' out front of there Harbord St. Shop. ©photo by Dave Carpenter

The Ebrahim Sisters’ Advice for Small Entrepreneurs:

The Ebrahim sisters don’t hide the fact that getting the Elchi Chai shop off the ground and transforming it into a viable business has had its challenges, even with a unique product in the marketplace that’s a proven success elsewhere. As with many an entrepreneur, when starting their business, they had no real idea of what they were getting into, as exemplified in Elchi Chai Shop’s initial soft launch.

“We invited a whole bunch of family, around 40 people, and scheduled them in different time slots. Yet they all ended up coming in the same time slot, and we were scrambling,” Sayeeda says. “Then the gas guy showed up and he’s installing stuff in the kitchen. It was chaotic, taking a lot of orders at once. At the end of the night, we thought ‘what did we get ourselves into?’"

Think Twice Before Ditching Your Day Job:

“People see that you’re self-employed and it all seems so great. However, it’s also 24/7, and you don’t get any sick days, medical and dental coverage or paid vacation days. --Sayyeda Ebrahim

The sisters agree that being your own boss has many benefits but caution burgeoning entrepreneurs to consider the harsh realities along the way to unshackling oneself from corporate life. “You really need to crack down and see what you’re not doing right,” Sayyeda says to those dreaming of the day they’ll run their own business. “People see that you’re self-employed and it all seems so great. However, it’s also 24/7, and you don’t get any sick days, medical and dental coverage or paid vacation days." Yet, despite entrepreneurship’s challenges, both sisters take satisfaction in carving out their own, caffeinated corner of the universe in The Annex.

All About Elchi Chai Shop:

  • Location: 130 Harbord Street, Toronto.
  • Facebook page: www.facebook.com/elchichaishop
  • The Product: It’s the real deal. Elchi Chai uses fresh masala for their chai, roasted and blended in house, with a variety of spices, including cardamom, cloves, black pepper and ginger. The sisters will also package their tea and spice blends in the very near future, something customers have been asking for.

Additional Food & Beverages:

  • Paratha: Think Roti meets Croissant: A flatbread made in house and popular in the north of India. Similar to a Roti, except double rolled and more filling.
  • Chai Cookies, Meat/Veggie Samosas, chaat, masala fries and Kebab Balls.
  • Lassi : The “Ancient Smoothie” – A yogurt-based drink popular in many parts of India. Flavours include Mango, Strawberry, Salty Lassi and Sweet Lassi.

Dave Carpenter is a digital media vet and founder of Carpendiem Inc., where he helps clients create and manage strategic editorial and marketing-based content. For more, go to: www.linkedin.com/in/davecarpenter/


photos and words by dave carpenter