Ubiquitous chaiwallahs & Lesssons


S. Ainavolu

11/26/2021 5 min read

Ubiquitous chaiwallahs and the lessons they can offer

Chaiwallah or the tea vendor is the most commonly found entrepreneur and businessman one can spot across our country. Over the century since India was exposed to tea as a drink, Indians became the largest tea consumers across the world. Probably they also drink tea enough outside their homes and hence the all-around presence of chaiwallahs.

Though as kids we were not exposed to tea drinking at the conservative home, over years this person picked it up as the habit. With this came the academic hobby of observing and studying chaiwallahs. In my early childhood when our father was teaching in a newly formed college in Siripuram, the faculty’s evenings there used to be the get-together of like-minded, socially conscious and intellectually vibrant colleagues at the only chaiwallah shop of that village. Whenever I was taken there by our father, though neither I had tea with them nor could follow thread of any topic of their discussions, my silent observation was on the “operations” of the chaiwallah. He appeared super-efficient to then young kid’s mind. He was one man doing all the chores, snacks to tea making to cleaning cups/plates. He was nice to and polite with his customers, who in this case were the best educated in that village. Probably, educated were respected in those days. Unlike the brass glasses that our relatives in the village used, here he served in transparent “glass” glasses.

Next to be observed was the one who had the stall next to the Matwada high school wherein our school was temporarily hosted. It was a bother-trio run tea stall. School was in the catchment area and all our teachers were the captive customers. The timely “office delivery” kept them alert and the extra value offered was month-long credit that was extended to them. Youngest brother who was sub-teens then was not attending any school. At the same time, he never missed our school on any day, as he had to deliver tea on all working days and twice a day. Roles and responsibilities were clear at the stall, as I used to observe while crossing their “mobile shop” on four wheels. Eldest who was about twenty “managed” operations including making tea and upma, second brother served customers. Third and the youngest, cleaned and also did above office delivery. They were present reportedly from 7 am to 7 pm, and one used to find that all of them always worked. It was really a hard work for the three young brothers who did not have their “pitru chhaya”.

When I joined the engineering college, I started drinking tea. In the evenings during the long waiting time for the return bus to arrive at the Erragattu stop, Raju hotel appeared endlessly supplying tea to needing students. Again, a typical start-up in a thatched roofed home (one roomed hut), focused migrant entrepreneur Mr. Raju was also a case study. This qualifies for the reasons of doing ground up entrepreneurship, his resilience and extra-ordinary public relations he could display. By the time we progressed through four years towards completion, he moved up from peddling a bi-cycle to a second-hand moped ownership. Definite sign of progress. Local embeddedness and social capital generation, one could learn from Mr. Raju. He used to address the local villagers and also his suppliers as “anna” (meaning elder brother, dada, bada bhai or mota bhai) and students (his customers of the tea) as “Sir”. Nuancing got mastered very early in his career. Probably instinct and the survival need are the best teachers.

Another memorable chaiwallah I came across was in then small and sleepy Dehradun (it was pre-capital days!). I went there for the first time, and for the interview with the oil major headquartered there. When I landed in the bus stand after overnight travel from Delhi, it was very late. Also, I was unprepared for the receding winter chill that existed there. Only one to welcome me at that hour was the local chaiwallah. He quickly and sequentially gave two hot teas, guided me on the town and its logistics of “Vikram”. He along with two beat constables were sympathetic towards the assumedly resource-constrained interview candidate. Reportedly, job aspirants for institutions situated there used to come to that town in a regular-stream. Within a few minutes that team could make a newcomer felt comfortable and assured that all will be well, including the immediate concern of economical lodging and vegetarian food. They did not need but lived the credo of “Athithi devo bhava” (guest is God). We as a nation adopted it as a tagline after over a decade and half since my getting positive memories on that day.

During our Joka days, the hunting ground for economical vegetables for the family man cum FPM student pursuing doctoral studies on Rs. 6K stipend in early 2000s, was the neighbourhood village called Pailon (pronounced by locals as py-lone). Next to the Pailon bus stop was chaa dada. My first observation was he kept a kettle in which water always used to boil. He used it for warming the glasses, so that hot tea need not lose its heat to heat the serving glasses. I am not sure whether he was aware but this was also hygiene infusing act for the glasses of public consumption. Here I saw the once-through tea making for the first time, both for making black as well as milk teas. The pricing of the tea then was also at rock bottom, targeting the customers who flocked in large numbers. Volume game, management pundits might say but he was sensitive and deeply embedded in the ecosystem. He did not require the lessons in “bottom of the pyramid”, but he himself was demonstrating it. This made his model sustainable.

Another chaiwallah who gave the observable lessons was Mr Nagraj of Vile Parle in Mumbai, a more recent case study. His stall was close to the railway station. It was a working day routine for this person to stop by, sip “cutting chai” and have occasional conversation to learn from him when he was free. He was another one-man army. Sourcing, operations, deliveries, cash counter and cleaning, all manned by himself. Solidly built, he was standing there from 7 am to evening 6. Only on Sundays, he told he used to close by two. He indeed was a representational sample of hard-working migrants who contribute to the Mumbai’s eco-system. Hailing from a small land-owning agricultural family of southern Karnataka, as a young man he wanted to grow out of small landholding which would further get divided among his brothers. He reached “City of Dreams” in mid-1990s and joined a Shetty restaurant near Central. Quickly moved up the service hierarchy, from cleaning to delivery boy to a waiter, he saved every rupee he earned for three years that remained with him after sending some to home. When enough capital (possibly couple of thousands) accrued, he set on his own path. His “one table under temporary umbrella” tea shop is the outcome that stayed for next two decades. He knew the game of stakeholder management well. Mr. Nagraj also often did cross-subsidizing, taking a rupee more from well-dressed office goers and subsidizing the less affording. This is also the place where I saw Amul’s six-litre milk packet for the first time. He freely shared a lesson that in Mumbai which demands long travel due to affordable accommodation issue, one should stay near the workplace and not far away. This, he told, helps one in working more hours and make more money. Absolutely suitable for the variable revenue model he had. Probably not fit for fixed salary working class who might save say even 50% in housing but can afford to spend 3-4 hours in work-related daily travel. His long-term plan was to go back to village, as he invested his savings in agricultural land in native village, which alone he trusts.

Currently, I am learning from Mr. Tukaram, my new office neighbourhood chaiwallah. He is aged, contented and appears “has seen the world”. With my work and life experience of decades, now I see clearly that any neighbourhood chaiwallah can offer many lessons to us. Hence, Chaiwallah became my favourite business situational showcase over the years. Demand forecasting, inventory management, eco-system handling, working capital management, and even payback to the community are few of the areas chaiwallahs can offer insights. Chaiwallah cases are also classic cases of ground up, low technology, limited capex entrepreneurship instances. There is enough scope for low frills models and there is enough demand. But it is also real hard work and honest one. Dabbawallas (lunch carrying organized work force working in a cooperative model) of Mumbai are highlighted and covered through case studies. Chaiwallahs of our neighbourhood need a respectful coverage. They deserve it due to their honesty, hard work and resource constrained, ground level entrepreneurship. We need to recognize them as the value creators.