Camellia Sinensis Opens Montreal’s First Chai Bar

Bristol Chai, Montreal

MONTREAL, Quebec

Everything is faster and more automated in today’s world. Taking time to appreciate a good cup of tea requires unhooking from the machine to experience the present moment fully. Somewhere between a quick coffee and traditional teas, chai satisfies a need for strong flavors, complexity and … caffeine, of course.

Bristol Chai emerged from years of very popular Monday “chai nights” at Camellia Sinensis Tea House in Montreal, Canada. Company executives say they listened to their customers and went with the flow. The plan developed to offer a chai alternative to the $10 coffee shop purchase of a latté and a snack. Chai is already popular in coffee shops but usually made with low-grade syrups or instant powders. Camellia Sinensis execs began to think about using fresh tea, whole spices and developing a system using the traditional method of brewing it all together for 30-40 minutes to maximize the flavor experience. Replace the espresso machine with a set of giant kettles, hire an in-house pastry chef to bake up fresh delights throughout the day and you have a gourmet coffee shop replacement.

A kettle is always on the boil

Camellia Sinensis (a partnership of Hugo Americi, Jasmin Desharnais, François Marchand and Kevin Gascoyne) then looked within the organization for someone to take the helm of Montreal’s first “chai bar.” Gabriel Svaldi had worked eight years for Camellia Sinensis, six of them as a tea house manager. He committed to the venture, returned to school, enrolled in business and entrepreneurial courses. “My partners from Camellia Sinensis have huge experience in entrepreneurship, so I have this big resource of advice, business tools, skills and expertise backing me up,” he said.

For his part of the startup capital, Svaldi used the crowd funding platform Ulule to capture a $10,000 goal.  Donors contributed more than $14,000 in the 50-day campaign. Meanwhile “the team” searched for a location.

The four tasters of Camellia Sinensis then developed five new blends of chai for the project with Svaldi and a new, independent brand for the venture. Each blend is identified by a different character-animal drawn in the style of a 19th century etching. Eva is a gazelle-like yogi posed on the floor in robes next to a phonograph. The blend contains turmeric and green tea. Winston, a woody and comforting blend, is represented by a large bear seated on a rocker with a musket in his lap. Clark, a chocolatey and spicy blend, is represented by a bull lounging in a French bathtub; Scarlett, a fruity and soothing rooibos based blend, is a giraffe reclining on a divan with a cocktail, while Arthur a dandy fox, the classic and balanced blend, stands next to a French provincial chair and is their best-seller.

Menu board features pastries and several chais

Bristol Chai opened May 15, 2017, at the corner of Prince Arthur and Clark in the “Le Plateau” neighborhood of Montreal. World Tea News visited three months later to investigate. Nestled among Montreal character housing and small businesses, Bristol Chai occupies a corner complete with patio seating in front. “Bristol” refers to the port city in England known for trading spices from India. “We thought the name had a good ring to it,” Svaldi recalls. First impressions of the chai bar’s interior were of a modern yet funky-retro 700-square-foot shop. Friendly staff provide great service and keep it really clean. A stylish U-shaped bar encourages customer interaction with staff and fellow patrons.

Chai bar

At any time Bristol Chai offers three or four of the five organic chai blends brewed up with almond, soy or cow’s milk. The style of preparation presents a limited choice so “what there is—is what there is,” no “skinny, decaf” kinds of choices here. Whatever is in the kettles at the time is clearly displayed on the menu board. Clients are encouraged to taste the selection and seem to “get” the system straight away. Chai sells for $3.75 (8 ounces) and $4.25 (12 ounces). Kazuyo’s French pastries including canelés and matcha financiers are available for those with a sweet tooth and priced from $3 to $5.

Winston

As things develop the Bristol Chai is seeing two principal client groups. Firstly the morning customer comes in for a chai to start her day, usually accompanied by one of Kazuyo’s fancy fresh homemade pastries. With tax and a tip, that’s roughly a $10 ticket that some will take out while others will stay to enjoy the cool atmosphere and Wi-Fi. “We are now seeing more of this in the afternoon, too,” he said.

The second style of client is the “lunch breaker” from the various shops and office buildings around Bristol Chai. “This was something we hadn’t expected, so we called in friends from a fancy gastro-sandwich lunch spot in town and they put together a simple very effective menu of sandwich and salad options of a standard we are happy to serve,” Svaldi said.

The grilled cheese is the star item made with 2-year-old cheddar, date jam and a caramelized three-onion mix. It sells for $7.50. Prices range from a $4.50 bagel to a $16 trio combo plate with sandwich, salad and chai.

“Slowly but surely we see a ‘fan base’ building up and an increasing number of residents and students from the neighborhood gradually becoming regulars,” he said.

Scarlett

Although it’s still early days, Bristol Chai is firing on all cylinders. The chai blends are packaged and sold online through its website, and Camellia Sinensis is now selling the blends in its retail stores and online. Also taking stock are many local grocery stores, fine food stores and cafes. Bristol Chai also holds workshops ($35-$45 for an hour-and-a-half session) in the evening for customers interested in making their own chai. Additional workshops are planned along with lunch deals for offices, and chai bar rentals for staff parties and events.

“We’re really focused on creating a delicious, memorable experience around quality products, service and atmosphere,” Svaldi said.

Bristol Chai
www.bristolchai.com
30, Rue Prince Arthur West
Montreal (Quebec), Canada  H2X 1S3
8 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday to Friday
9 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday