February 3, 2012

Easy as Chai: The Gateway Drug

No doubt, you serve them. Perhaps you were one, in days gone by. I was. Standing at the counter, thinking that all of those scratches on the chalkboard meant nothing, and no matter, I didn't like coffee anyway. (There was a time, I promise.)

But I didn't wonder for long. No, I knew what I wanted, and it's the same thing I recommend to similarly dispossessed people today: Chai.

More properly, we might call this masala chai, or "spiced tea", in Hindi. (A rough translation.) But we don't call it that, and in a country where one can find 24 oz "mocha cappuccinos" at gas stations, such tradition is clearly disposable.

Semantics aside, the drink is not too far removed from its Indian roots. You start with black tea, and steep it with several spices. There are no hard and fast rules about what you must use, but cinnamon and cardamom are usually expected. The tea is sweetened - again, with any number of things - and warm milk is added. (Milk has a big place in Indian culture, and as such, is the traditional choice. Even still, I think soy works better here than with coffee.) The result is rich, creamy, warming, and sweet. It is both stimulating and comforting.

Of course, very few places make their own chai. Most use either Tazo or Oregon brand, both of which offer several varieties. And while both are decent (I really prefer Oregon, in a pinch), I've found better taste and room for creativity when the recipe is one's own. The biggest variable to toggle here is sweetness. You can leave one concentrate sans sugar, and allow the customer to consume as is, or add their sweetener of choice. The calorie conscious crowd like the control, and the local foodie hipsters admire the craftiness of it all.

Regardless of demographic, I've never had a person respond unfavorably to chai. It seems everyone likes it.

There are other advantages as well. First, it's an easy drink to make. You mix the concentrate with milk, steam, and pour. When it's iced (a non-traditional, but quite good, spin), it's as quick as a drink gets. And because it feels like a premium beverage, it sells like one, despite lacking espresso.

Of course, you can add espresso, which is where chai really shines as a gateway drug. The dirty chai - the same drink, but with espresso - is the perfect transitional beverage. When a customer wants something that "is coffee, but like, sweet", this is where I point them. The result is still plenty sweet, but much more balanced. And there is that espresso, slipped in underneath the veil of creamy spice, both boosting the caffeine content and the price. (Not that I'm all about the money, but sales matter.)

As with the chai, no one has left any less than thrilled with the result. And that, of course, is where you really create business. Up-selling 75-cents is nice; creating customer trust is immeasurably more so; giving a positive welcome to the cafe atmosphere is bigger still. 

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