When passion and determination mix they can create anything. Amy Rothstein, founder of Dona Chai, was never a big chai drinker before she started her Brooklyn based company. However, her love of the food industry led her to see a gap in the market, and she jumped on it.
What lead you to New York?
I’m from Michigan and I went to the University of Michigan for my undergraduate degree. After I graduated I moved to Colorado for a year and worked on a non-profit farm that had a program for children to learn about growing food. I knew that I wanted to work with food in some way, so I took that year to really figure out what I should do next.
What was it like working on the farm?
It was so perfect. It was small organic farm; I think it was maybe just eleven acres. They ran this amazing educational program that employed kids to work on the farm during summer. We would teach them about farming, growing and cooking food.
There was a head educator and then three of us who worked directly with the kids. I managed the lettuces, kale, cabbage … anything leafy, and worked with a group of twenty kids.
Wow. That's a lot of kids to manage.
Yes, it was. I worked with them and we were responsible for these crops. So it was our job to plant, harvest and to weed them. On the weekends we would take them to the farmer's market and then the kids would actually sell what they grew.
It was my dream job, so after the farming season ended I applied to graduate school for food studies.
What is food studies?
It covers just about anything you can think of in the food industry. That's why I moved to New York three and a half years ago, to do my graduate degree. Initially I was really interested in continuing to see how I could work with kids and food, but the non-profit industry is really hard. There’s not a lot of money in it, and it’s very seasonal. Also being in New York City isn’t an ideal place to find farm work!
I can imagine. [Laughs]
While I was studying I was spending a lot of time in coffee shops. I noticed most of the products being sold came from local vendors, baked goods, cold pressed juices, organic coffee … but no one was making chai locally. I started looking around and realized this didn’t really exist in New York. I needed a job so I decided to start my own business to fill this hole in the market.
Were you drinking a lot of chai?
I drank it a bit because I’m not a coffee drinker. I’ve always been really interested in food and how places create menus … how the design of food comes together. Seeing this gap where chai was involved really stood out to me.
So what was the first step in starting this business?
After I got the idea I went to my dad. He is a venture capitalist so he works with new businesses. He had also started his own company. I brought my idea to him and he asked me a two questions; “Does this exist already?” “Is there a need for it?” I explained my thinking, that there was a market for it, and it didn’t already exist. He was really supportive and told me to go for it.
I had never actually made chai before, so I started to research recipes. I decided to dedicate an entire summer to perfecting a recipe. The more I researched, the more I discovered that there isn’t really a set recipe for chai. Different countries and regions put different spices and teas into their chai.
My mom is friends with a chef from India, so during that summer I went back to Michigan to meet with her. She came over to our house and gave my mom and I a lesson in Chai 101.
That's an amazing contact to have.
It was so cool. We ended up making three distinct types of chai. The first was ginger based, the second was cinnamon and the third was a combination of sugar, black tea and ginger. There were so many options in regards to spices, I could have used just one, or ten. It made the process a bit daunting. Do I want to use allspice? Do I want to use anise? I could even be more creative and use a mixture.
I tried a few recipes I found on the internet but they didn’t really work. I was constantly going to buy more spices and trying new variations. It actually wasn’t a very happy summer because the process was so frustrating.
How did you find your final recipe? Did you have friends do taste tests?
I had friends to taste it for sure but I was more concerned with making a recipe that I was happy with. I set a really high standard for myself. Once I found a recipe that I loved, then I had people come and taste it.
Once I had the recipe it was a scramble to pull the initial business together, finding a designer for the website, getting a logo, finding bottles that work, designing packaging … There was a lot of googling at each stage. [Laughs]
The biggest thing was finding somewhere to actually make chai in a large volume. I asked a professor in my food studies program and he had a colleague who had an incubator space. He was so helpful in talking me through the initial set up, getting a license and insurance and things like that. I kept checking all these things off the list, and then I was ready to actually start brewing.
When I started, obviously it was just me. Thankfully I was able to use some of the guys who worked at the incubator space to help me. I had never made 150 gallons of chai before. Prior to this I was just making it in my kitchen.
My brother moved here a couple of months later, and he joined the business. He studied business so it was really helpful to have him to run that side of things.
Was it easy to translate brewing in a small batch to such a large volume?
It was a nightmare because cooking isn't mathematical. You can’t just multiply the ingredients for a bigger batch. The first batch we made was really weak for some reason and then we fixed that problem by adding more tea, but then the next batch tasted horrible.
Each batch we made for a while had a different issue. We would fix one thing, and then have to adjust things for the next issue that would come up. Even now we still tweak and adjust the recipe depending on the volume we’re making. Everyone who works here knows what our chai is meant to taste like, so we work off that.
How did you actually get your chai into cafes? I imagine that process is initially quite scary.
It was. I took a grassroots approach and would wake up each day, fill my bag with bottles of chai and go from place to place. Coffee shops are quite casual places, so walking in and just having a conversation with people really worked.
Did you remember the first order you got? Or the first person who was like, "Yes, I will take some chai"?
I do! It was actually during a coffee trade show at the Javits Center. I had a booth there, and my mom flew out to help me. We would sit there and offer people samples, and I got my first two accounts from that show. It probably took me another couple of months to get ten accounts. By the following year I had thirty accounts and it just kept growing.
That’s really impressive, especially in New York where I feel like people have seen and tasted everything so they have a really high standard.
Totally. It really boosted my energy, but it was also exhausting.
And now you’ve moved into this amazing building that’s filled with food companies and kitchens …
This place is amazing. It can be really hard to find manufacturing space for a small company. This building and space makes it really affordable for food companies to produce their products
Did you ever consider starting this company in another city?
Not really. I came to New York specifically to do the food program at NYU. I didn’t really think about doing it anywhere else. I do think eventually when we have the resources I would consider it.
What's the biggest challenge you think you've come up against?
The biggest challenge is probably figuring things out as you go along. We grew really fast which was great, but it’s also hard. It’s mentally depleting, we need more time and more people. Before I had my own company I remember hearing people say that they work all the time. I thought they were lying, but they weren’t!
Chai is also a really niche market. It’s not like selling water or coffee, where everyone knows what it tastes like and they drink it all the time.
I feel like you just need to tell people it has caffeine in it and it will sell itself.
A lot is changing right now, but I still go into coffee shops with samples. We’re at a point where people know about our brand which is really cool.
You live in Williamsburg, and work in Bed Stuy … what are some of your favorite places?
My brother lives in the East Village and there is an amazing Indian restaurant we go to called Babu Ji. There’s a dish on the menu called ‘unauthentic chicken’ that is delicious.
There’s a great ramen spot near here called Samurai Papa that I love.
Grassroots Juicery in Williamsburg has delicious smoothies.
What's the best piece of advice you could give?
To start your own company, you really have to love what you do. I’m really excited by work, but I’m not sure that I knew how hard it would actually be. Just be ready to work really hard.
Also, ask for advice. Reach out to people, talk to people.
What does New York mean to you?
Smelly summers. [Laughs] It means culture. It’s such an amazing place to live.
Visit Dona Chai for your chai fix.