Living with Rituals: Innovation in a Centuries’ Old Practice

How should an enterprise evolve – what are its responsibilities – when it’s closely associated with a part of quotidian life? For example, today, it’s hard to dissociate coffee in many countries from the ubiquitous Starbucks store.  Or, if you’re looking for information about just-about-anything, you go to a search engine, most commonly Google; in fact ‘to google’ is practically a verb now.  Using Google and visiting a Starbucks are part of daily life.

In this post, I’ll reflect on some pretty neat lessons about balancing the innovator’s attempts to induce change, and the customer’s behavioral bias to leave things as they’ve always been, especially when the company in question is a ‘guest’ in the customer’s daily routines.


Some years ago, Amuleek Singh and I set out to reinvent the corner tea-store in India, starting in Bangalore, in an enterprise we called Chai Point. ‘Chai’ or some variant thereof is a near-universal word for tea (chai in Arabic, cha in Korean, chai in Hindi, chai in Russian, chay in Persian, shaah in Somali, chai in Swahili, just to list a few), and the name Chai Point just rolled off our tongues!

The corner chai store has been the stuff of much romance. Many a Bollywood movie unfolds amidst its ambience. Any stroll through a just-awakening Indian metropolis will see folks, en route to work, sipping hot chai on the roadside. Stores on the sides of India’s highways are magnets for truck and bus drivers pulling over to take a break, and so on.

All well and good, but there’s also an underside to this. The chaiwallah – the tea vendor – operates out of a dirty looking store, using unhygienic equipment, and employs hard-working but emaciated little boys running around with dirty glasses and shabby kettles delivering piping hot tea in ways that are asking for someone to get a scalding burn. The experiment we embarked on was to do better, to modernize the ritual of chai without losing its essence.

Here’s an exquisite photo-celebration of India’s traditional chaiwallah recently done by National Public Radio in the US: Can we preserve the social fabric represented in these images, retain the local memories of whom the chaiwallah is the repository, enhance the magic perhaps, all while nudging it towards modernity?

And here’s a short video montage of Chai Point celebrating our interpretation of the ritual of chai in India:

But also, please read these notes on our journey and reflect on how we’ve done.

Over time we experimented with the format of the street-side chai store- the size and look and feel of the store, the offerings, the training of otherwise underemployed personnel in the stores (educating them about process control, safety, hygiene, etcetera), the implementation of environmentally conscious practices, and so on. Since our target is the individual who sips tea many times a day in a roadside store, we had to be very price-competitive. To fix ideas, if street-side chai costs Rupees 10 for a cup, and Starbucks prices its cup of coffee in India at Rs 150 or more, we wanted to be a lot closer to street-side retail, to make high quality chai super-affordable.

We are now lucky to have devoted customers who linger around our stores, quaffing multiple cups of affordable but (very) high quality tea made to exacting standards from choice ingredients, delivered hygienically, many times a day.

If the stuff of ritual is tea as a conversation-starter, tea as a break-in-monotony, tea as a pick-me-upper, then we’ve achieved that in no small measure through our 100 stores and many more to come, already serving 200,000 cups daily across seven Indian cities.

We then realized that a major part of the ritual of tea unfolds in the office setting. There is usually a mid-morning and a late afternoon tea break, typically someone comes by with hot tea and an accompanying snack. So we had to preserve this ritual, and thus was borne Chai@Work, a service where we contract to deliver tens of thousands of cups of tea daily across a range of corporate work-places now in multiple cities.

A third evolution was Chai-on-Call, a nod to the mobility economy, since tea, like other aspects of life, has become on-demand. For some, congregating on the street-side store remained part of the experience. For others, tea had to be summoned just like anything else – a website, a uber-like-service, a temporary worker for a particular task, etcetera. So, we deployed a large fleet of environmentally conscious electric bikes that zip around delivering chai moments after it’s ordered on a chai-app. This requires algorithmic sophistication to manage our capacity to brew tea so that it’s always fresh, and figure out the location from which to promptly dispatch the tea needed to fill a particular order. It also required us to innovate on packaging, engineering a flask that holds as few as two cups, manages to retain the heat of the beverage and its flavor and taste, yet remains cost-effective.

So, this enabled tea to be summoned for any impromptu gathering, in anyone’s home, in any setting for a meeting, indeed on any roadside location where there’s no physical store.   I’m reminded of the legendary Bob Woodruff, CEO of The Coca Cola Company for three decades or so starting in the 1920s, famously saying that their beverage should always be “within an arm’s reach of desire”!



Throughout, we’re obsessed with the question of what happens when you tamper with a ritual as fundamental to the lives of individuals as drinking a beloved beverage. Do you invent something new? Do you alienate some when you meddle with a central part of their lives? If you alter the look-and-feel, do you detract from or enhance the experience? Can you alter the ingredients – add spices, or flavors – or must you retain grandma’s recipes for authenticity?

We’re still innovating! Our latest is a chai-robot, you can see it at (boxC stands for Chai-in-a-Box), which will allow Chai-on-a-Cloud, so to speak, that is, an internet-of-things controlled dispenser of authentic, freshly brewed, piping hot, aromatic chai, customized to you, 24×7 in office settings. So we won’t have to be constrained by the physical presence of say one or two chai making and dispensing locations within an office or factory setting, but can have the robots deployed in tens of spots in any facility, all centrally maintained by an office facilities-manager, simplifying that person’s life.

Living with the ritual of chai requires a lot of experimentation to make it more convenient, within the rhythm of what individuals already aspire to, making it ever more convenient, ever more consistent.

Like any creative new venture, it’s a balance between art and science, and a load of fun!



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