Rupali Ambegaonkar, Founder, Tea Culture of the World.
Tea Culture of the World sources teas from across the world and prepares signature blends. The beverages seem to be everyone’s cup of tea: Revenue has grown six times in the last two years.
It was a cold February evening in Rajasthan and a group of backpackers of different nationalities were huddled together with hot kulads of sweetened masala chai. The conversations in the highway shack weaved around the different kinds of tea available in different parts of the country and the globe – from Kashmiri Qahwa to Oolong and Jasmine teas.
There is something about a piping cup of tea; it can get conversations flowing. CS Lewis said it best: “You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me.”
It was this love for different kinds of tea that led Dr Rupali Ambegaonkar, a qualified medical professional, to set up the Iron Buddha Company, which sources teas from around the globe and is the parent company of Tea Culture of the World.
From kitchen cabinets to the cup
Speaking of how the idea of Tea Culture of the World originated, Rupali says a Chinese friend had gifted her some Chinese oolong tea that was lying in her kitchen cabinets. Rupali says,
Finally, when I decided to give that tea a go, I was bowled over. I was never a tea person until that moment, but now I can’t bear to keep my tea cup empty. Drinking that oolong tea made me go on a quest to purchase that tea in India, and that’s when I realised that there is no availability of quality teas in the market despite the demand. That’s when I decided to make global teas available to the Indian market.
It was this passion that drove her to gain a sommelier degree, live in tea estates, visit tea gardens, and gain knowledge and expertise to start Tea Culture of the World. For their e-commerce model the team has tie-ups with Blue Dart and Professional couriers for their domestic and international deliveries.
“We ship all our orders from the HO, personally supervising each shipment. Getting the initial process aligned is a bump that we all had to overcome. The biggest hurdle being that the tea industry is majorly located in south and East India, and employing industry experts in Mumbai was a challenge,” explains Rupali.
Building the team
Started in 2010 in Mumbai, with a team of two, the team soon grew. Today, they are a team of 30 people in the head office with a retail strength of over 50 employees.
Rupali says Iron Buddha Company has retail, inventory, marketing and digital marketing teams with multiple individuals collaborating to “bring out the best in each other while generating profit for the company”.
“We source teas from all over the world. The fruits and herbs come from Europe, while the flowers come from Egypt. We also source teas from tea estates in Japan, Vietnam, China, Argentina and South Africa,” Rupali says.
Once the teas are imported, they reach the warehouse in Bhiwandi, where the in-house team prepares signature blends. The teas are then packaged and distributed across different outlets in India, including hotels, corporates (for gifting) or individuals who place orders through the website.
Understanding the world of teas
Since Rupali had gone the extra mile to understand teas, it became easier to source the right blends from different parts of the globe.
Rupali says when she started Tea Culture of the World, she realised that while India is a tea-drinking nation, there is a lack of education and knowledge of tea.
For an Indian, tea is always Masala Chai, or milk-brewed tea. Also, there are no tea tasters or tea blenders who are globally qualified. Rupali adds,
Changing that scenario was a bit of a challenge that we are still overcoming. The media has played a major role in making things easier by bring green tea into the spotlight. We, as a nation, are slowing opening up to the idea of herbal teas that can impart tremendous health benefits. There is a wonderful culture shift seen where we have walk-in customers who specifically ask for international teas. As a company, we are doing our bit through our teas that tell a story.
The market of premium teas
Rupali says their revenue has grown six times in the last two years and expects to see it increase 10 times in the coming years.
According to a report by India Brand Equity Foundation, India is ranked fourth in terms of tea exports, which reached 232.92 million kg during 2015-16 and were valued at $ 686.67 million. Tea production hit 1,233.14 million kg in 2015-16, led by states like Assam, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Kerala.
The premium team market is pegged somewhere close to Rs 3,600 crore. It, therefore, is no surprise that there are several startups looking to take a bite of this pie. These include Teabox, The Kettlery, Tea Trunk, BuyTea and Infinitea.
Rupali adds that for Tea Culture of the World, it is not about drinking tea but “about the whole experience”.
“We believe in exploring tea not just as a consumable product but something that has to be experienced. We believe in attention to detail and the finer nuances of teas, bringing to you a one-of-a-kind experience,” says Rupali.
Currently bootstrapped, the team is currently in the process of raising their first round of funding.
“As a way forward, we plan to launch more stores across popular retail chains. Global brand recognition is something we are keen to achieve in the coming years,” Rupali says.