As a Pakistani in a foreign land, there are days when you want nothing more than a hot cup of authentic chai at a place that reminds you of home.
Whether you immigrated years ago, moved abroad for college and decided to stay or got married and started a new life miles away from Pakistan, there can never be an end to those chai cravings. And we’re not talking about chai latte (what is chai latte but an insult to the glorious chai anyway?).
Luckily, most metropolitan cities in the world — New York, London, Toronto and the like — have cafes and restaurants that remind you of home and curb your cravings. Yet there are days when finding a cup of authentic chai becomes difficult even in the middle of a metropolitan city.
Khalida Brohi, a Pakistani activist, and her husband Dawood, realised this and decided to change that for the diaspora in New York City. The result of this decision is Chai Spot: a chai café and social enterprise in Manhattan.
Fast forward a few years, it has two branches in the United States and Khalida and Dawood hope to take that number to 50.
Chai Spot is more than a chai spot or a café in a foreign country. It’s a home away from home for Pakistanis and a comfortable spot for foreigners to come and learn about Pakistan’s traditions and culture.
On the menu, there is an array of traditional and seasonal teas, accompanied by delicious baked goods and South Asian snacks and treats. Chai Spot’s traditional cardamom chai and coconut rose chai (vegan) are the signature beverages.
The menu has something for everyone: the chai enthusiasts, the vegans and even the keto-ers (the chai comes with an option of Stevia instead of sugar).
Chai Spot provides its guests with an extraordinary experience for all the senses: the scent of fresh spices, comforting flavours, plush seating, exotic colours and patterns and upbeat Bollywood songs.
Khalida believes it is a place for guests to relax, make new friends, and see the world through chai-coloured glasses, where everything is colourful, beautiful and happy.
Chai Spot is special for more reasons than one; it’s a home away from home for Pakistani New Yorkers, a social enterprise ensuring every cup of chai educates children back home and also because it is the result of a beautiful love story that brought two people together in the most unique circumstances.
Khalida, a tribal girl from Pakistan, had been facing challenges with her development efforts, with opponents in her village trying to bring her down and making things extremely difficult for her family. After a bombing at her office and facing a stroke, her otherwise supportive father told her to stop working. To get a much-needed break and perspective, Khalida went to the US in 2013 and met Dawood while she was staying at a friend’s place.
Despite coming from completely different worlds, Khalida and Dawood connected over their deep faith in God and their desire to make a difference in the world. At the time, Khalida fought her feelings because she worried she had already brought so much trouble to her family, but fate had other plans in store for her.
Ten months later, she ended up in the US again for a six-month fellowship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “It was then Dawood and I met again and realised we are both in love and will fight with our families to make our marriage possible. Dawood immediately wrote to my father and also told his mother. What followed was a shocking realisation for both of us. Our families acted in such fear and surprise,” she told Images.
Their reactions were predictable. Dawood is an Italian-American who grew up in a progressive family in Los Angeles; Khalida grew up in a tribal village in Balochistan. Their families were poles apart. Dawood's family had only seen Pakistan on television and her family was not ready to form a relationship with someone from a completely different world.
But as they say, where there is a will there's a way. Both Khalida and Dawood stayed determined and it was chai that brought the families together and they ended up getting married in a 10-day long celebration in Pakistan, where Dawood and has family experienced Pakistan’s rich culture and heritage.
It was then that they decided to bring a taste of Pakistan to the US. “This could be done with something that represents our culture so much — chai,” Khalida added.
Khalida and Dawood decided to use the funds for their wedding chapter in the US to open the first branch of Chai Spot in Sedona, Arizona.
A beautiful reflection of the culture and heritage of Pakistan, Chai Spot not only serves authentic and fusion chai in various flavours but also displays handmade products and offers a complete experience of Khalida’s country, as she puts it. Today, the two branches are one of the most visited places in Sedona and New York City.
But it wasn’t an easy feat.
The biggest challenge in opening Chai Spot was navigating the systems in a new country. Khalida and Dawood worked extremely hard to learn the basics and started from scratch. “The budget, of course, was not enough, and we ended up finding innovative ways to make the place work in the earlier months. Every day was a great adventure, every month was a learning process and every failure showed us what not to do,” recalls Khalida.
At the same time, she remembers these struggling days as some of the best.
“Now as we plan to open our third location, both Dawood and I have come to a beautiful balance of finding our skills and distributing tasks based on our skills and interests and also have an incredible team to help us,” she adds.
For many, Chai Spot may be a reminder of home, but Khalida has her priorities set. For her, it’s a social enterprise dedicated to building bridges between the East and the West while empowering women and children in Pakistan.
Guests come to enjoy a cup of authentic chai, but they know that every cup is empowering the most vulnerable members of the society we celebrate: the women and the children. Chai Spot is committed to spending 50% of its profits on projects benefiting them.
Khalida’s nonprofit organisation in Pakistan — the Sughar Foundation — promotes beautiful traditions and provides socio-economic empowerment to women in tribal communities. Their aim is to end the consequences of exchanged marriage, child marriages and honour killings.
Chai Spot helps Sughar Foundation reach its goals by building schools and educating children in communities where funding and opportunities are scarce. While educating girl children is a great way to empower Pakistani women, empowerment cannot come without financial independence.
Therefore, Chai Spot’s proceeds help in giving micro grants to women entrepreneurs to help them start their own businesses, support their families and lead happier and independent lives.
As a woman, Khalida knows the strength financial independence brings to women’s lives and she wants more Pakistani women to experience it.
Just a few years in, Chai Spot has already built two schools for girls and boys in the rural communities of Pakistan and they are working on a third one.
These schools educate 500 children seeking primary education and while Khalida hopes to extend the efforts to higher education too, the Chai Spot gives grants and scholarships as well until a permanent and sustainable solution can be formed.
On a smaller scale, Chai Spot is grateful to be able to distribute toys among hundreds of children, thanks to Tlaq toy town, because the social enterprise believes in spreading happiness and joy around the world and where else to begin than spreading it amid children?
When Dawood and Khalida got married, they got a small apartment in Karachi to spend more time in Pakistan with their loved ones and to work here. Khalida has been visiting Pakistan every two months and Dawood four or five, but she is now looking to spend more time in the country.
Sughar Foundation has recently signed a contract with the National Rural Support Programme as its second implementing partner in Pakistan, which Khalida mentions as one of the biggest successes of her life. “I received a letter from the Prime Minister’s office including me as a member of the National Youth Council and both of us decided to move to Pakistan for at least a year or two to give our complete attention to the growing projects here,” she mentioned.
Clearly, this is just the beginning of many great things to come!
As Khalida and Dawood hope to open 50 cafes across 50 states, we can envision a brighter future for the tribal and rural areas of Pakistan too. Khalida told Images that she truly believes Chai Spot has already started changing the story of Pakistan in the mindsets of hundreds and thousands of people in the US and will continue reflecting her beautiful country.
“Whenever people walk into any one of our locations, they see the true colours of Pakistan, hear the true stories and touch the fine handiwork of hardworking artisans in Pakistan as well as taste the delicious tea of our country. Chai Spot is already on its way to creating lasting friendships among the West and will become one of the doorways to peace for this country Insha’Allah,” she added.
Follow Khalida’s adventures and watch her conquer the world on Instagram.