Hot milky tea, locally known as chai, is a consistent symbol of comfort and refreshment in the midst of everyday life for many Indians. Whether on a break during a cross-country drive, out with colleagues between meetings, or simply after a day long of work, chai brings people together to step back, recharge, and share ideas.
The places where chai is often prepared and consumed—the ubiquitous tea stall—can be found in every corner of India. From rural roadsides to urban alleys, the chai stall represents the quintessential small business of the country.
To understand entrepreneurship in the context of India, one must understand the chai stall, and the spirit of the people who own and operate them, the chai wallahs.
To grasp a deeper understanding of chai culture and the significance of owning a chai business, we went behind the scenes, seeking an unconventional opportunity to spend a week working alongside one of these entrepreneurs, Om Prakesh.
We started this immersion to better understand small business, but we emerged from the experience understanding something much deeper about the spirit of rural entrepreneurship in India and beyond.
Photographs by Christopher Scott
1 / Om, 61, is the owner of a roadside tea stall in Naddi, Himachal Pradesh. Despite his petite physical presence, standing a mere 5 feet tall, Om and his chai stall are paragons of stability in the village. Om speaks often about the pride he has in operating his own shop, noting repeatedly how his life has changed since leaving wage labor as a chef in upscale Delhi hotels nearly 30 years ago. "I used to work in the shops and hotels in Delhi. I wasted 21 years of my life doing that. Since I started this business, I'm much happier that I control my income. I feel free. It's much better for me, and my family. It's my thing." Pictured: Om Prakesh
2 / We worked in Om's shop for a week, shadowing him and doing everything he did—take orders, prepare meals, collect cash, and wash dishes. Pictured: Om and Stepwell co-founder, Anmol
3 / Shops like Om's have a simple menu, defined by over a century of tradition and evolving regional preferences. Typically, chai stalls serve up a few quick-to-prepare items: hot chai, instant noodles, paranthas, eggs made to order, and simple sandwiches. These menu items complement each other. They are served hot, and are especially cherished in the colder months of the year. Om adds, "My menu philosophy is to serve foods I can prepare and consume within a single day. Nothing goes to waste here."
4 / The shops tend to be small, with room for just one or two attendants. Floor space is minimal and each wall is blanketed by fully-stocked shelves holding the many items needed to run the shop. Within this dense network of objects one can find the varied ingredients and utensils for cooking and dining.
5 / If customers are not in the mood for something hot, these stalls typically stock and sell a range of bottled soft drinks. Even in the most remote of villages, chai stalls enable easy access to both local and international products from Pepsico and the Coca Cola Company.
6 / Many businesses in India devote a corner of their space to a small shrine, or mandir, where they display religious imagery. Beneath the images it is typical to see bits of food, flowers, and small amounts of local currency—all of these offerings to gods which have symbolic association with material wealth and business success. Om mentioned that his perceived favor with divine powers is a primary driver of his success, saying, "With god's blessing, I've been able to operate for over 30 years. I have the blessings right here in my shop."
7 / In many parts of India, it is rare to see women working in tea stalls. Stepwell co-founder Anmol experienced this firsthand,"many of Om's customers asked me a lot about what I was doing and why. People were surprised to see me."
8 / "This shop runs on my service. I do my business with a good heart, I try to spread happiness and I think people see it." Om as an uncle/father figure to many in Naddi. Within minutes of arriving in the village, it is easy for someone to notice this. His presence is felt throughout the village and his business is popular with both locals and visitors alike. Om adds, "I find that people who stumble upon my shop return again and again."