While May marks the annual celebration of Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, this year’s commemoration takes on perhaps even more significance because of what the community continues to endure during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, while unfortunate circumstances may have led to a brighter light being cast on the AAPI community, The Balance aims to focus on the success stories of founders across regions and industries who’ve faced their own set of challenges and persevered—all the while maintaining their cultural roots and heritage. These are their experiences.
Though Farah Jesani is the daughter of Indian immigrants-turned-entrepreneurs, the thought of becoming a founder herself didn’t cross her mind until relatively recently. But after spending years toiling away in the corporate world, Jesani finally decided it was time to take the leap, leave the hustle and grind of New York City, and head across the country to Portland, Oregon, where she eventually launched One Stripe Chai, a producer and distributor of authentic Indian “chai,” which means tea in Hindi. Call it destiny if you will, but for Jesani, One Stripe—which alludes to the phrase “earning your stripes”—is a reflection of her culture and upbringing, one rooted in a family of entrepreneurs and daily servings of tea.
The Balance recently spoke with the proprietor about launching a tea brand in the coffee-fueled Northwest, the cultural influences at play in bringing “real” chai to the masses, and her vision for One Stripe moving forward.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you end up launching a tea brand in Portland?
I really wanted to open up a coffee roastery. My parents were very supportive, but were like, "You've never worked in the service industry, so you should get some experience. It's hard work. Make sure it's something that you want to do."
So I ventured out to Portland randomly, and just started learning how to barista. I was like, "Let me spend some time here. Let me learn about coffee." That was when I realized that an $8 latte is worth the $8. There's so much that goes into craft coffee. The amount of work that's put into roasting, and even your barista, the things they're doing behind that espresso machine, the amount of detail that they go into, is really awesome.
I would go to coffee shops all the time, but I would never order chai, because I can make it at home, so I'm not going to pay for it. I can probably make it better than whatever I had tried out there, which always just tasted like cinnamon milk to me.
So the chai in Portland wasn’t even close to what you grew up with?
I remember being at a coffee shop that was really well-known, and thought, "This place puts so much attention to detail in their coffee, their chai must be amazing. They must be so careful about every other product that they're serving, because they care about quality." I remember ordering the chai and just having this moment where, before I took a sip of it, the barista stopped me, took this shaker of cinnamon or nutmeg, and just dowsed the entire cup. Tasting it after, I had a really visceral reaction of, "This is not good. This is unlike anything I've ever tasted. You can't taste the things that make chai what it is."
Chai is such a beautiful drink and in South Asia, it's this unifier. It spans languages and religions. No matter what corner of India you go to, you can order a chai and you know what you'll get. I felt like we're passing it off as something that hasn't reached its potential at all.
I remember digging into, "Well, why are coffee shops that have so much attention to detail unable to serve good chai? Do they just not know?" What I realized is that, since coffee shops don't have stove tops—typically they don't have kitchens—they don't have a way to make chai the way we would at home. So they have to rely on concentrates and powder blends to be able to [make it] quickly. So that led to, "Can we make a better chai latte? Can we source our ingredients better?"
After I graduated college and was moving to New York, my cousin drove me up and we stopped at another cousin's apartment in D.C. When we got to his house, he made us chai, I was like, "Oh my God. I've been drinking coffee the last few years in school. I forgot. I haven't been home. I missed chai." He went into his cupboard and brought me a jar of black tea. He's like, "Take this. Use this when you make your chai."
I realized that this tea was from little tiny granules, not full leaf black tea. So I drew on that. With this granular tea—which is called CTC, named after a process of making black tea where it's "cut, tear, curl”—there are these giant rollers, and they crush them into these little granules. It's really strong and multi-flavored, and it gives you a really homogenous flavor profile. It tastes like real tea.
That was when I realized that not only do we need to talk about what kind of tea we are using, but I really care about this. This is really fun.
You’ve said chai was something you loved growing up. Did your family have any impact on your business decisions?
When my parents moved here, they were 22 or 23. They lived in New York. My dad had what they call in India a “commerce” degree, which is essentially an accounting degree. He had a bunch of different jobs working in accounting, and he finally realized, "I could just do this myself."
So he ventured out to be an entrepreneur, and was like, "I can get my own clients." He's had a firm for a very long time. Because of that, we grew up seeing him [work]. His first office was in our first house, in a little loft area. Then he got his own real office, and it got bigger and bigger.
My mom, at one point, owned a restaurant. I grew up going to work with her over the summers every single day, and learning how to use the cash register, and just watching her really just own that place.
When I pitched the [One Stripe] idea to them, they were first like, “You have this really great job [in corporate].” But they were very supportive. They liked the fact that this was culturally relevant and that I cared about that.
How did the pandemic affect your business?
The pandemic, oddly, gave this pause where I was like, "Well, this is a moment that our customers are no longer at the coffee shops. They're at home, and they want to learn things." Right when the pandemic started, our e-commerce sales increased, and our grocery sales increased. So immediately I thought, "Well, people want to drink our chai. Let's bring them chai in a different format. Let's teach them."
So we launched our loose-leaf chai blend called “Chai Me At Home.” It did really well. Then, the second product that we launched was our “It's Haldi, Doodh.” I wanted to bring something different that was also relevant. I grew up drinking haldi doodh, which is turmeric milk and honey.
I was a little nervous, because people don't know what that means, but they have embraced it. We have coffee shop customers that buy our Haldi Doodh, which I think is so empowering because I think there's so much in a name.
It's a nice nod to the Indian community in a sense.
When turmeric became very trendy, we would always walk into a coffee shop and see golden milk or see golden milk latte, and we would always roll our eyes and be like, "It's haldi doodh." That's what it is. Turmeric is something that is so native to India.
When I think of haldi and the use of turmeric in India, that's ancient. So if we can bring the name to people's vocabulary, that's really empowering and cool.
I will say that running One Stripe Chai has selfishly been really exciting for me, because it's given me this opportunity to learn a lot about my identity as a Muslim Indian daughter of immigrants. We've gotten great opportunities to go to India, and go on sourcing trips, and really learn about how tea became so big in India. How did they become such a big grower of tea? Where did these estates come from? How did the British impact how India consumes tea?
What is your vision for the company moving forward?
One Stripe is a chai company, but my vision for it is really to become a South Asian beverage company. When launching Haldi Doodh, I realized that there are so many drinks that we grew up with that you just can't find in the regular market. To be able to get some of those drinks that I really love, I have to go all the way to the suburbs to the Indian store.
There's an opportunity for healthier, cleaner options, and better ingredients that are tasty. Right now, people care about global flavors and learning about what they're drinking and eating. So it's a really beautiful time to be able to bridge that gap, really teach people, and to share the beauty of a lot of awesome South Asian drinks outside of chai. There's just so much more than chai.