Written for Foro, Published January 2017
Calmer Sutra Tea was founded in 2002, supplying a unique chai offering into Melbourne cafes. Aside from having a catchy name, the company was the first to pioneer the ‘wet chai’ concept. We spoke to founder Caitlin West about building a brand, maintaining customer loyalty, and giving running a small business a red-hot chai.
It all started when Caitlin West attended a ConFest with friends, and experienced a ‘Chai Tent’. Here she discovered a love for the liquid with its invigorating and calming properties, as well as the community-focused ritual around enjoying it.
From there, she made chai for herself at home. A common dilemma for Caitlin was when attending cafes with friends there was nothing beverage-wise on the menu that appealed. So she started bringing her home-batched chai into her local cafes. At first it was to make for her consumption, but it then developed into adding it to their wider beverage offering.
‘There was no big vision back then. I guess I’ve always had that entrepreneurial side where I like creating things, rather than just doing things that I’m told’, Caitlin tells us. ‘I’d rather create opportunities for myself.’
When the feedback from the cafes started coming back positive, Caitlin saw an opportunity for Calmer Sutra to be born. She approached more cafes, attended a small business course and borrowed some money. The end goal? ‘I wanted to develop something that was true to its roots and really authentic, but something that was barista friendly.’ Says Caitlin.
The name sprung from a few factors. The origins of Masala Chai are from India, as is the Kama Sutra. The ‘calmer’ play on words represents the calming properties that derive from the fragrant tea, as well as the brand image the company wishes to embody. Cheeky side note: There may be a few subtle aphrodisiac qualities in the spices used, as well.
‘I wanted to develop something that was true to its roots and really authentic, but something that was barista friendly.’ – Caitlin West
When making the tea, apart from being the first of its kind in the market, Calmer Sutra have always proudly made sure that their offering is of value to their customers. ‘We’re never looking to cut corners due to cost, quality always comes first’, Caitlin tells us, stating that they’re very transparent about what goes into the tea and how the business operates. ‘I think that’s why we’ve had our longevity’.
From what started out as a great idea and was only stocked in a few cafes, Calmer Sutra now stocks nationally, although has a strong customer base in Victoria. ‘I’ve never been one to plan that far into the future’, says Caitlin, who has developed her business over the last 15 years mostly by assessing opportunities as they present themselves. The business has grown largely through word of mouth, with the marketing of the company happening very organically.
‘We don’t really profit all that much. It’s not what’s important to me.’ She says. The business does provide an income and an outlet for her creativity, but the main benefit to herself and the team is that they’re creating something that they feel good about—even more so now that all the teas they produce are organic.
When the chai market in Australia started to become more saturated and competitive, Calmer Sutra Tea decided to concoct some new product offerings that would complement the chai that they were best known for. ‘It was about having a bit of diversity and not having all our eggs in one basket.’ Caitlin said, with the added benefit of being; ‘another way for me to fuel my creative outlet’.
When designing a new product, Caitlin tries to make sure it’s unique and not already in the market. Calmer Sutra is proud to be the first to create the wet chai concept and utilize fresh ginger (rather than dehydrated), and want to keep being market leaders with any new products they release. ‘Things that are the first of their kind and quite unique,’ are the standards they strive for. Methodical experimentation takes place in Caitlin’s kitchen to develop new flavours, including research and trial and error. She’ll try several different blends at once, stating that sometimes the flavour is great but there’s something not right about the balance. ‘Sometimes it might take ten or more attempts until you get the balance right. You make a lot of awful products in the process as well that never go past the first sample’, Caitlin laughs.
Aside from being unique, all the Calmer Sutra Tea products are small batch, which allows the team to monitor consistency. ‘I would never have my product manufactured elsewhere. We get to see what’s going into every batch and be a part of that process’, Caitlin tells us, and with chai; there can be a lot of variables in both the tea and the spices. ‘No one harvest is ever the same, every crop is different’. They tweak the recipe constantly to keep the flavour consistent.
By grinding the spices themselves, the team (after all, you can’t spell team without tea) ensures that the product maintains more of its freshness. ‘As soon as you grind a spice it releases its oils and it starts losing its potency.’ The tea is quite literally made to order Caitlin tells us. ‘The chai that’s being made today will be going out tomorrow or the next day.’
Ensuring freshness and quality to the ingredients adds benefits to the consumers after all, as Caitlin tells us fresh ginger is a prime example. With health benefits spanning anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial, antioxidant rich and anti-nausea, the components of a chai tea are perfect for someone who is after a health-conscious beverage, as well as being keen to enjoy the relaxing and rejuvenating flavours of the exotic blend.
The ingredients are sourced from a spice agent and local honey supplier that Calmer Sutra have established long-term and loyal relationships with. The same ethos is applied to their customer base. ‘We have a strong sense of loyalty with our customers, and it’s about making sure that’s maintained’, says Caitlin. ‘We believe in our product but we’ve also got to make sure we deliver really great service as well’.
‘We believe in our product but we’ve also got to make sure we deliver really great service as well’. – Caitlin West
At the end of the day, the Calmer Sutra Tea product was born out of creativity, quality, hard work and loyalty. They’re still in the market today because they haven’t compromised since day one, and they still offer a darn fine product. ‘We try to remain competitive but we also don’t undersell ourselves. We believe if people want quality they’ll pay the quality price.’ Says Caitlin.