Ani & Ayan Sanyal

Kolkata Chai Co.
East Village, NYC
We will take bets that you have never had a proper Chai in your entire life. Chai lattes from Starbucks and chain restaurants don’t count - they are a muted, tamed version of the real thing. When we first had our sips of the Oat Chai, we felt like we were seeing for the first time - the fireworks that Remy the rat had in Ratatouille, we saw and felt them too. The sweet creaminess, the spicy feel in the back of our throats, that you can only get from tasting real, fresh, ginger, the different spices that we couldn’t place but know that we have never had in this capacity before - we were changed people. For the first time we're regretful that we no longer live in the EV. If we did, we'd quite frankly find ourselves at Kolkata Chai Co. more than our own homes. We sat down with brothers Ani and Ayan Sanyal to talk about their journey and favorite spots in the city.
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Full name, age, where are you from?

Ani Sanyal, 33. I was born in Massachusetts to immigrant parents from India. 

Ayan Sanyal, 28 (29 soon!) -- also born in Massachusetts to the same parents. 

What was growing up like for you and did you have family meals growing up?

Ani: I grew up in a family full of unconditional love and support. We didn’t have a lot of material things but we had each other and I’m forever grateful to how our parents raised my brother and I. Growing up as a brown kid in the ‘90s was a confusing time. I had a lot of questions around identity, career and creativity that I had to answer for myself since there weren’t any reference points in popular culture or my immediate ecosystem.Family meals were an important part of our upbringing. Our parents were very strict about the family eating together as a way to maintain closeness and connection.

What meal, or beverage, most reminds you of your childhood? 

Ani: Phew, it would probably be “dal bhat” which translates to lentils and rice, a staple of Bengali cuisine. Sometimes my brother and I would crush potato chips to “Americanize” it, but that was the one item that stands out to me. 

 

Ayan: Our dad is a great cook, he makes everything from Italian to Thai dishes. Hilariously, he puts the Bengali mirepoix (onion, garlic & ginger) into everything and that’s something we still tease him about to this day. Mom focused primarily on Bengali dishes -- comfort food like Mangsho Jol (pressure-cooked-fall-off-the-bone-goat-curry) and Chingri Maach’er Malai Curry (Coconut Shrimp Curry). A lot of Kolkata Chai Co. has been trying to encapsulate that sense of nostalgia & comfort with food.

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Tell us a bit about your venture. What is your role and how did you get into this industry?

Ani: We started Kolkata Chai Co. to create a space that reflected the duality of the first generation immigrant experience. We were raised in tradition and custom and had a deep respect for those things, but at the same time want to move our culture forward. KCC is a reflection of that duality and we tell that story through the most important drink in our culture: chai. We also knew that it was time to reclaim the narrative of chai in the Western world and instead of caricaturing it as this sweet, syrupy concoction, share the richness of its tradition and boldness of flavor.

 

Ayan: I’m the product guy. Without a professional background in food, I learned how to make chai by studying the chaiwallahs on the streets in Kolkata. I have to make sure everything on our menu respects our vision of bringing authentic Indian street food to NYC in a modern/hip setting. As a co-founder, I find myself doing everything, but mainly I run the day-to-day cafe, design the food & drinks menu and manage our chaiwallahis.

 

Ani: My role as a co-founder is to lead all of our marketing, branding and creative operations. I’ve lived my entire life at the intersection of business and culture and I infuse those learnings into our strategy. My brother and I started a marketing agency in 2016 and that’s where we learned about how to build community, products, digital strategy -- we incubated Kolkata Chai within our agency and launched officially in 2018.

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How has the pandemic affected you?

Ani: Our cafe/restaurant had barely been open for 6 months when the pandemic hit. It was an incredibly difficult time for us as first time restaurant entrepreneurs. It stretched our physical and mental bandwidth as we went into full time problem solving mode to keep the lights on. We pivoted our restaurant model to e-commerce and delivery and ended up being a profitable company at the end of the year. However, it took a big emotional toll on my brother and I and it’s something that we’re still recovering from.

Ayan: I don’t think we fully understand how damaging this pandemic has been to the restaurant industry. We were fortunate to get some government aid, but it’s been few and far between for a lot of our peers. Being up against the wall constantly in a brand new food business was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I’m glad things have stabilized and we’ve managed to survive and even thrive given the circumstances.

What do you think working in this industry during this time has taught you?

Ani: If you don’t love what you do and the people you do it for, don’t get started.

 

Ayan: Food service is a thankless job most of the time, but food itself has a spiritual power that transcends all of that. We gain power and understanding from sharing and giving -- food is essential to what it means to be human. 

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What's your favorite dish and drink on the menu?

Ani: It would be our egg roll and classic masala chai. There’s a half sweet tea / half mint lemonade that’s off-menu that is incredible too. 

Ayan: The glenburn sweet tea on a hot day is quite unbeatable. Reminds me of the Darjeeling hilltops, hah. 

What is your favorite place to go out and eat at and what are you ordering?

Ani: Right now in NYC, it’s probably Somtum Der or Fat Choy. At Somtum Der, I’m getting the Tum Thai (Papaya Salad), Fried Chicken, the Minced Mushroom Salad and Flat Noodles with Shrimp. At Fat Choi, I’m getting one of everything on the menu. 

Ayan: So many options even just in the East Village itself. I swear, you can’t fake the funk in NYC! My go tos:

- Soothr: duck noodles are amazing. 

- Superiority Burger: Yuba Verde and their daily dessert

- Minca: Toro Niku Ramen with the Tokyo noodles

- Nowon: Elote!! Burger!!

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Anything exciting coming up for you?

Ani: We are really excited about the future of Kolkata Chai. We’re exploring expanding to our second location now and have some dope partnerships in the culture space that we’re excited about too. Thank you for this opportunity to tell our story too! 

Ayan: Sometimes I forget that I’m working for myself and making chai for a living. It’s a dream come true already. I am looking forward to taking the energy and experience we’ve created and making it accessible to more people. Thank you!

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