Elchi Chai: Urban Toronto’s Best Tea Shop

I’ve run to work for years, and now that I’m an entrepreneur, I often run to meet current and potential clients, depending on their tolerance for spandex and some mild sweating

Thankfully, the Ebrahim sisters are easy-going, and they serve the best chai tea I’ve ever tasted. Bonus, they’re located almost exactly 10 km from my house in The Beach, making for a perfect easy-paced, 10k training run to the shop (see route below).

You see, the Ebrahim Sisters are on a mission to share with Torontonians what a billion Indians already know: Chai is a superior caffeinated beverage to coffee, and one that you can enjoy all day.

Sukaina and Sayyeda Ebrahim, of Tanzanian heritage and raised in Brampton, Ont., opened Elchi Chai Shop on Harbord Street near the U of T campus 2 years ago, after seeing a gap in Toronto’s beverage market that their native country’s beverage could fill.

“It’s a real coffee culture in North America. Yet, from our research, we found that up until the 1980s, tea and tea shops were still popular in Toronto, then they slowly started dropping off in the ’90s with Starbucks’ rise,” says Sukaina Ebrahim, the elder sister.

“It’s a real coffee culture in North America. Yet, from our research, we found that up until the 1980s, tea and tea shops were still popular in Toronto, then they slowly started dropping off in the ’90s with Starbucks’ rise,” says Sukaina Ebrahim, the elder sister.

However, the sisters say most are distorted versions of the real thing that includes a heavy dose of milk-based concentrates. The Ebrahim sisters offer the real-deal: traditional chai that contains richer, more complex flavours; the secret, they say, is more tea and traditional brewing methods.

Chai and Biscuit break, Elchi Chai Shop. Photo by Dave Carpenter

Sukaina and Sayyeda have branded Chai as an any-time-of day tea, as is customary in India. “Chai isn’t a morning drink, but a hospitality drink. It’s a social drink with friends,” says Sukaina, the elder sister of the two. “It’s the first thing you offer guests in India and other Asian cultures.”

Chai’s proven success in the Australian and UK hot beverage markets over the years has also provided the Ebrahim sisters with the motivation to open their Harbord Street shop, with a nudge from their straight-talking father who finally told his daughters to stop talking about opening their business and just do it.

And so they did, opening up Elchi Chai Shop on the north side of Harbord two years ago, with younger sister Sayyeda putting her graduate studies on holdd, as well as Sukaina’s career in interior design, which shines through in the shops appealing decor. The two sisters have always been close and had successfully worked together at a furniture business in the past, so they were pretty confident they’d make good business partners.

Sukhaina and Sayyeda say their working relationship has gone well so far but don’t hide the fact that getting even a small fraction of Torontonians to make the switch from beans to tea leaves, has proven more challenging than expected, and offer other small businesses advice that they wish they understood from the outset.

Sukaina Ebrahim behind the counter at Elchi Chai Shop. Photo by Dave Carpenter

Ebrahim Sisters’ Advice for Small Entrepreneurs

Expect Launching a Business Will Be Much Harder Than You Think. The Ebrahim sisters don’t hide the fact that getting the Elchi Chai shop off the ground and transforming it into a viable business has had its challenges, even with a unique product in the marketplace that’s a proven success elsewhere. As with many an entrepreneur, when starting their business, they had no real idea of what they were getting into, as exemplified in Elchi Chai Shop’s initial soft launch.

“We invited a whole bunch of family, around 40 people, and scheduled them in different time slots. Yet they all ended up coming in the same time slot, and we were scrambling,” Sayeeda says. “Then the gas guy showed up and he’s installing stuff in the kitchen. It was chaotic, taking a lot of orders at once. At the end of the night, we thought ‘what did we get ourselves into?’

Think Hard Before Ditching Your Day Job: The sisters agree that being your own boss has many benefits but caution burgeoning entrepreneurs to consider the harsh realities along the way to unshackling oneself from corporate life. “You really need to crack down and see what you’re not doing right,” Sayeed says to those dreaming of the day they’ll run their own business. “People see that you’re self-employed and it all seems so great. However, it’s also 24/7, and you don’t get any sick days, medical and dental coverage or paid vacation days. “Yet, at the end of the day, despite entrepreneurship’s challenges, both sisters take satisfaction in carving out their own, caffeinated corner of the universe in The Annex.

More About Elchi Chai Shop

It’s the real deal: Elchi Chai uses fresh masala for their chai, roasted and blended with a variety of spices, including cardamom, cloves, black pepper and ginger. The sisters will also package their tea and spice blends in the very near future, something customers have been asking for.

Additional Food & Beverages:

Parotha: Think Roti meets Croissant: A flatbread made in-house and popular in the north of India. Similar to a Roti, except double rolled and more filling.

Lassi: The “Ancient Smoothie” – A yogurt-based drink popular in many parts of India. Flavours include Mango, Strawberry, Salty Lassi and Sweet Lassi. Additional Snacks: Chai Cookies, Meat/Veggie Samosas, chaat, masala fries and Kebab Balls.

Future Plans: New store locations to grow the business.


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