Homemade Masala Chai Company Indian Chai Guy Gets Start During Pandemic
For Sandeep Mehta, founder of Indian Chai Guy, an entrepreneurial idea also became a way to connect with home.
When Sandeep Mehta lost his job at the start of the COVID pandemic, he suddenly discovered himself at home with three small children. Amid the upheaval, he found something he had lost since moving to the United States in 2009: time in the morning to make fresh masala chai, the spicy, sweet tea that’s a staple in Indian culture.
As his morning tea routine became established, Mehta began sharing his homemade chai concentrate with friends, family and neighbors. “It just kind of took off,” he says. Before long, he created a business and named it for what he had become: the Indian Chai Guy.
Now he sells his concentrate under that name through his website while promoting it on his Instagram feed. Using Assam black tea as his base, Mehta creates batches of 32-ounce jars to order and then arranges curbside pick-up or local delivery. The concentrate comes in both sweetened and unsweetened versions, ready for customers to blend with whatever milk, dairy-free or otherwise, they prefer.
For Mehta, making the chai serves as a business but also as a way to remember home. “I met my wife 13 years ago while she was traveling in India,” he says. “I moved to New York City to start a life with her, and five years ago we moved to Columbus to be closer to her family when we decided to have kids. But all of my family is in India, and while we get to visit them, making chai and sharing those rituals and traditions helps me feel connected to them.”
Discover more of Columbus' food and drink scene:Subscribe to Monthly's weekly dining newsletter, Copy & Taste
Indeed, family is the origin behind Mehta’s chai recipe. Like many comfort foods across the globe—think curries, spaghetti sauces, pies, dumplings—each family has its own version that often spans generations. “And, of course, there are varieties by region,” Mehta adds. “I spent many hours and days FaceTiming with my mum and grandma in New Delhi, trying to get the recipe exactly like they make it. This recipe has been passed down through the Mehta family for generations, and it is a special way to stay connected with them during the long pandemic. My wife and I are foster parents in Columbus, so not only do I get to pass on my recipe to my son, but to all of the kids we care for before they reunify with their families.”
Mehta didn’t reveal his family’s recipe, but he did share that he uses fresh spices and crushed raw ginger in his version. “My chai is brewed in small batches, as an order is placed,” he says, “so the spice combinations are the freshest, and this allows their full flavor to shine.”
Mehta says his tea is also adaptable to different preparations. “Chai in India is always hot, so it wasn’t until I moved here that I had ever even heard of an iced chai,” he says. “But that’s the great part about a concentrate; you can pour it over ice or heat it, and they’re both delicious.”
Mehta hopes to someday expand his offerings beyond local pick-up and delivery. “We would love to start selling our concentrate at markets and retailers, or a mobile cart,” he says. “We are currently looking for the right commercial kitchen partnership.”
It’s easy to understand why Mehta would turn to the soothing practice of making chai during the pandemic: It speaks to the comfort of home. “Chai is life in India, it is a big part of our culture,” he says. “When guests, friends, family come to your home, chai is always a part of the greeting. We don’t even ask, we just pour. It is also a part of street culture; on every corner in India is a chaiwallah [chai seller]. Chai is accessible to all. Regardless of how much money you have or the caste your family comes from, we all have chai in common. Everything from neighborly gossip to heated political discussions happens over a cup of chai.”
Where else to find Chai in Columbus
Many restaurants across Columbus, particularly Indian and Somali eateries, as well as some local coffee shops, create their own chai. Here are a few:
To accompany its vegetarian South Indian menu, Dosa Corner on the Northwest Side brews up a custom recipe for hot chai.
This Clintonville coffee shop and gallery crafts its own concentrate from fair-trade and organic black tea seasoned with cardamom, cloves and cinnamon.
This Somali fast-casual stall in the North Market serves a popular hot chai that’s rich with cinnamon, cloves, ginger and cardamom.
The owners of this trailer craft their own recipe for chai using a mix of spices including cinnamon, cardamom, peppercorns, nutmeg and “whole-ass Madagascar vanilla bean.”
This Somali eatery serves a fragrant version of hot chai that pairs beautifully with chicken suqaar or stewed goat.
Both locations of Zen Cha (Bexley and Short North) serve six to eight different chai teas based on their own recipe, from a masala chai to coconut to cinnamon mint.
This story is from the November 2021 issue of Columbus Monthly.