Shikha Puri is a little bit obsessed with tea. “Mist is good. Altitude is important,” she says, seated at the DLF City Phase III Club in Gurgaon where we are the only two guests this summer afternoon. Over tea (but naturally), she explains how the first flush of the plants yields the best and longest leaves, and though India has a treasure trove of tea plantations, the best leaves are exported because they can sell at a very high premium in the first world. “But why shouldn’t Indians enjoy the best of their own teas?” she asks.
The question is what drove Shikha to give up her high-flying corporate job at J Walter Thompson – where she handled the advertising portfolios for clients such as Airtel, Spicejet, Microsoft and the World Bank – and jump into entrepreneurship two years ago. She had three major impetuses. The first was the wealth of knowledge about tea production in her husband’s family. Her father-in-law NK Puri is considered one of India’s leading tea experts and had worked on the largest plantations all his life before retiring a few years earlier. Shikha’s husband was born in a tea garden, and had also worked as a tea taster before joining a large private real-estate firm. The family often travelled to their own estate in Darjeeling – the tea hub of India – and doing business there would not alter their travel plans too much.
The other thing that pushed Shikha was her little boy Parth, who was becoming a handful. Giving up a 9-to-9 job and working at her own pace was a tempting idea. To top it all, the demand for green tea was growing at 30% every year. It seemed as if the heavens were aligned for a brave new boutique tea that would bring the best Indian teas to Indian homes at last.
In 2015, Teacupsfull was born.
“You’ll be surprised how many food or beverage businesses don’t have the required certification in India,” says Shikha. Her company is registered with the Tea Board of India, and is licensed to export. She tied up with FedEx for logistics after learning of their special schemes for startups such as hers. Her firm developed a range of teas – green, white, black, oolong – and a variety of flavours and add-ons – tulsi, masala, cinnamon. They designed attractive packaging and began offering corporate gifting and festive hampers. They set up an online store teacupsfull.com and began retailing from other online and offline outlets. They also began offering tea accessories such as special pots and mugs that allow the leaves to sit in hot water and then be strained out before drinking.
Soon, the 35-year-old became quite the tea expert herself. “You can add milk in Assam tea, but not in Darjeeling tea. Pour boiling water on the leaves in a pot. Let it brew, then strain it,” she goes on, expounding on the variations of English Breakfast Tea (it’s a blend of long-leaf teas from Assam), the best way to pack tea leaves (in a zip-locked foil pouch inside an air-tight tin), why she sources from the Halmari garden in Assam (they have the best CTC – crush, tear and curl – tea in the world), and adds spices from Kerala to make a blend (it’s plain delicious).
We head to her tea store in Gurgaon. “Here, smell this,” she says, offering a glass jar half full with jasmine tea. I am impressed with its delicate aroma so she calls for boiled water and offers me a cup. It’s pretty good, I marvel. And then I look up to see Shikha’s face as she sniffs it like a connoisseur holding a glass of wine. She takes a sip, satisfied. It’s the face of a job well done.