A trail is often an unpaved lane. Used by mountain bikers to test their skills or by walkers to explore the unknown. For the Mathurs, Tea Trails was a similar expedition. A journey into a promising and yet unexplored terrain – that of a nationwide tea café chain.
Uday and Kavita and their partner on this venture – Ganesh Vishwanathan are the links between the seemingly unrelated businesses of India’s largest pre-school franchise chain, Eurokids and what could potentially become India’s largest tea café chain, Tea Trails. Their fourth partner, Sanjeev Potti joined them from Tata Communications.
This serial entrepreneur team of 3 had set up Eurokids in the early 2000s. They exited that venture via a sale to a venture capital fund in March, 2013. The first café of Tea Trails was launched at the Viviana Mall in Thane near Mumbai in November, 2013.
How did they make this transition? What can other potential entrepreneurs learn from these experienced minds? We met up with Kavita and Uday Mathur – over invigorating cups of tea – and asked them these questions.
Here are their six key tips.
1. Strive for a niche
In 2013, India did not have a single nationwide tea café chain. For a predominantly tea drinking nation, that was a surprise. It had multiple coffee café chains but if you wanted chai, it was the tapri you went to. It was this void that interested the Mathurs.
2. Be prepared to morph
In 1997, Uday was heading TI Cycles. For the sports loving, IIM Calcutta batch of 1983 graduate, the tennis loving city of Chennai was just right (Uday still plays tennis 5 days a week).
He was then headhunted to head a joint venture between Egmont and Indian Express. Egmont is Denmark’s leading publisher for educational resources for primary and lower secondary schools. The business plan was to sell high quality content to Indian schools. When the dealings with schools became a challenge, Uday decided to use and extend the company’s publishing know-how to pivot into becoming a pre-school itself. Eurokids, the new entity went on to become the largest pre-school chain in India.
With Tea Trails too, the team continues to experiment. There are the regular cafes and then there are the fine dining bistros (at Kala Ghoda in Mumbai, in Connaught Place in Delhi and at Koramangala in Bengaluru). Even within the regular cafes, while the 80 odd varieties of teas offered remain largely the same, menus keep changing.
Recent days have also seen an extension in the range of teas offered. Cold preparations like mocktails and bubble tea have made their entrance.
3. Differentiate, differentiate, differentiate
The last three years have seen a number of tea lounges coming up – ones that cater to just a locality as well as those that have national ambitions. How does one stand out?
Kavita chose the option of making each customer interaction a memorable tea drinking experience. Each order is accompanied with a write-up on the origins of that particular tea and how best to prepare it. An old world sand timer to assist you in ensuring the right steeping time comes with the tea. Add to that food pairings – a recommendation on what food would go best with the tea just ordered – and you have an experience that is similar to a wine tasting.
That is indeed the intention – to take tea away from being a simple daily ritual – and treat it as a global beverage deserving its own ceremony.
4. Great teams make great companies.
In today’s day of extreme specialization, entrepreneurs seek partners based solely on domain expertise – a sales expert to handle sales, a technology champ as a CTO and a logistics hero to look at supply chains. They overlook the key role played by partner chemistry. Will the team stand as one when they are tested by tough times – as most teams are? Can they overlook small differences as they pursue the big picture?
The team – Ganesh, Uday and Kavita – have worked together for a long time and have come up trumps against difficult odds.
It is important to realize that while domain knowledge can be acquired, a team that can withstand the rigours of entrepreneurship is a rarity, something to be cherished.
The same team that handled Eurokids is all set to take on the challenge of taking Tea Trails national. The countless hours spent understanding each other, working together, carving out their specialized skill sets hold them in good stead as they take on this new journey.
5. Recruit for passion
The one trait that Kavita and Uday look for in her potential staff members is passion. First, an ability to unlearn the beverage you thought you knew all about. And then a passion to deep dive into the ocean of tea, to learn more and to serve and educate customers.
6. Have an edge
This team understands franchising. The break-down of every process into digestible teachable bites, the strong focus on training, the key drivers behind choosing the right franchisee – this team knows and has done it successfully before.
As they get to the serious end of scaling up Tea Trails, the learnings from Eurokids would be invaluable. With a plan to have 500 cafes pan India by 2020, a successful franchising structure holds the key.
That is an edge that should allow Tea Trails to trailblaze a rejuvenating brew.
If you are a lady passionate about tea with plans to run your own Tea Trails café, give Kavita and Uday a call. Their busiest café – that would be the one in Vizag is owned and run by a lady, as are 80% of their franchised cafes.
You might catch Uday sipping a lapsang souchong tea, his favorite cuppa. He might be planning to catch Roger Federer in action at one of the Grand Slams. Which just might be the best time to catch him.