Let’s take a collective breath and remember that chai IS tea, so from here on out, there is no need to be repetitive with, “I’ll take a chai tea.” All kidding aside, Chai does come with a specific aura and flair, aroma and spices, and a well of history from a part of the world as varied as one can get. Monica Sunny of The Chai Box knows this firsthand, so from her corner of the world, now Atlanta, Georgia, she and her team have made it their mission to share the real joy behind their celebrated cups and how it is nothing like the chai, or the experience, you will get anywhere else.
Like No Other
When Oprah’s people call your people, that is one indication that you just might be on to something. But, well before The Chai Box became a sought-after product on Oprah’s favorite list in 2021, or part of the drool-worthy swag bag for The Oscars, Sunny knew how special chai could be. It was part of her very backdrop in India as a little girl and it became an essential part of her youth as she acclimated to her new home in the United States. She also knew, that when you sit for chai or “cha” as her family calls it, you are not only consuming a delicious, freshly blended aromatic cup, you are pressing pause on the harried tenets of everyday life. You are taking a much-needed break from the noise that even the happiest of busy lives emits. Her company does not just create a product, it encourages time, ritual, intention, and presence.
And where does that sensibility come from? Long before Sunny and her family got to Atlanta from India when she was just nine years old, her family had a built-in daily ritual of having chai together. As a newcomer to this country, amidst the horrors and bullying that can occur in school while trying to fit in, Sunny sought comfort at home in soothing cups of chai, which conjured the spices of her first home; much later, as a mother, she was determined to keep such rituals alive for her three boys.
“After completing my Master’s program at Vanderbilt University, I started my career in corporate America, working for one of the top 10 consulting firms in wealth management. I then changed my focus to specialize in human resource development helping companies with their return-on-investment analyses. Soon after starting a family, I opened my own consulting practice serving clients such as Goldman Sachs, Bank of America, Emory’s Goizueta School of Business, Chick-Fil-A, and Bell South.”
A Family Affair
Every Friday after school, Sunny would have “chai time” with her three boys (then 2, 4, and 5; now 18, 20, and 21). “I made sure my kids experienced the same ritual I shared with my parents as a child,” she says. “I would bring out my box of spices and teas—what the boys referred to as The Chai Box—and teach them how to prepare the perfect cup of chai,” continues Sunny.
Her eldest son had severe allergies, so instead of chancing a reaction elsewhere, she often invited his friends and their parents over to their home in Atlanta. “I started introducing them to our chai time rituals and they loved learning about authentic chai and wanted to purchase the chai box themselves,” she says. Word travels fast. In time, she had orders from friends, family, and neighbors interested in recreating her ritual in their own homes.
Soon, she began spending hours in front of storefronts like Pottery Barn and Williams-Sonoma to test her product. She then set her sights on a trade show that could give her and the product much more exposure. “We spent $10K at the time—certainly, a lot for us—but we needed to make an impact,” Sunny admits. “There were cheaper options, but I knew we needed to splurge on the corner booth…”
Surely, it was a risk. But guess what? It paid off. The rest is history as they say, because it was at that trade show where Oprah’s team strolled up and opened a once in a lifetime door to The Chai Box business, demand, exposure, and more. Those dividends weren’t paid overnight, however. There was an extensive process, a few rounds of correspondence, as well as branding, packaging, and distribution efforts to wade through before officially being selected.
No Grab & Go
Unlike so much in American culture that by very nature is fast, immediate, and easy, what Sunny offers with The Chai Box is a slow, deliberate experience. When you order a Chai Box product you are giving yourself the gift of time and flavor. “The culture of Chai is not a grab and go concept,” Sunny says. “It’s rooted in tradition, [and is] a time to take a pause and enjoy the process, and to share [that] with family and friends.”
In most parts of India, you can’t even get a to-go cup when you visit a chai-wallah, a local tea seller with a stall on the side of the road where they demonstrate their particular method of making chai. “You usually drink in a glass or stainless-steel cup,” Sunny explains, “and enjoy in the moment. You enjoy the process of watching it being made and drinking it!” This is why what The Chai Box offers goes well beyond a product in a box, bottle, bag, or tin.
If you watch one of Sunny’s beautiful videos—she posts her Cha Meditations nearly every day, except when she is out of town—you will undoubtedly become mesmerized by her every move. From turning on the stove and talking about her pots, to the combination of spices she blends or the explanation behind the color of perfect chai and the double boil, it is easy to get swept away by the ritual and time taken. If you haven’t been sold by that point, then surely you will when she selects her beautiful kettle and cup and pours it amidst the sun or rain in her lovely backyard garden.
Sunny and The Chai Box are fortunate that her father-in-law lives in Kerala—considered the spice capital of India—where they work with a number of local, family farms in order to source the myriad of premium spices the company uses to create their particular blends.
Speaking of blends, there’s an endless array of combinations from floral to spicy to somewhere in between. Although many may be most familiar with Masala Chai, The Chai Box has been meticulous about creating blends that will appeal to a range of palates. They’ve even created some inspired by Sunny’s time in the U.S. and have become a blend of her two cultures.
Getting the blends “just right” reigns supreme on the company’s to do list. So much so, that when creating the Chai Concentrate, she and her son Ethan spent a year trying to create the best version. “It took us 174 batches,” Sunny says, “to get the perfect recipe. It was 2am and all the spice notes hit just right. It was balanced and tasted like home,” she continued. Her son agreed, and it remains a bestseller today.
Chai & Beyond
In the six and a half years since The Chai Box has been in business, the company has grown from a basement project to an expanding team and small manufacturing enterprise. They host tastings and spice-blending classes, attend trade shows, and create social media content. But Monica Sunny knows, as a business owner, you need to keep growing and learning. “You get to a point where you need to hear other people’s stories,” she says. So, in the last two years, Sunny has jumped into a host of collaborative endeavors, including women in business empowerment organizations, namely the Tory Burch Fellowship and Stacy’s Rise Project.
“Being a part of [those entrepreneurial projects],” says Sunny, “I was able to learn from other’s experiences, build relationships, and have a community that I could touch base with and learn from, [in addition to] share what I had learned. It was not only a great mentorship opportunity but also a chance to make lifelong meaningful connections.”
Just two days ago, on Monday, July 10, Monica Sunny was awarded second place for Dell’s DWEN Dream Tech contest. In its third year, the organization honors women entrepreneurs for their forward-thinking and vision, and honors them with up to $40,000 in order to grow their technology infrastructure. Let’s toast with chai to that!