Brook Eddy went to India looking for inspiration. She got it, just in a different way than she expected.
In India, Eddy fell in love with chai — spicy, sweetened tea served with milk — and today her Colorado-based Bhakti Chai is approaching $2 million in sales and Bon Appetit magazine namechecked Bhakti in naming Boulder America’s Foodiest Town in 2010.
The path to tea mogul was challenging and unexpected.
The divorced mother of twins had no background in manufacturing, and her experience in food was limited to small-scale catering. But she trusted her heart as her chai business grew from a hobby to a multi-product line with 16 employees.
In 2002, made plans to go to India to pursue her writing passion. She applied for a $10,000 Lange-Taylor grant through Duke University to research Swadhyay villages, while her photographer brother took photos for a creative collaboration on the experience.
“I had faith it would all work out. I felt like I’d been working since I was 15, finished undergrad in an honors program, went to grad school, and started to work full time two weeks after graduation,” Eddy recalled. “So I did feel like I deserved to take three months and travel – and did think that the trip would on some level lead me to my next opportunity.”
Off she went, halfway around the world, to pursue creativity and experience a totally different culture.
“India was like going home. I’d never been there before, but some part of me had been there and resonated with the sights, sounds, smells, chaos, colors, vibrancy. I learned so much about my inner strength and my inner voice in India,” Eddy recalled. “It was also the first time I had ever traveled with my biological father and brother. I did not know them growing up, so it was a beautiful opportunity to get to know them better.”
Eddy found she hadn’t been chosen for the Lange-Taylor grant, which left her searching for the next thing, but still committed to writing a book, using the inspiration and stories she collected in India.
Meanwhile, she’d also returned from India with a taste for the Indian spiced tea the way it’s authentically served there. She looked around when she returned home and couldn’t find a product that was spicy enough or fresh.
That had pushed her to the kitchen to make her own. She started by making a traditional chai recipe and added fresh ginger and black pepper. It took about four months in 2005 before she felt she’d hit on the right proportion of spice and sweet, for a fresh-tasting tea.
In 2006, she was writing a story entitled “Bhakti Trampoline” at a coffee shop in Boulder and was wishing she could sip on her homemade chai while she was writing and not the watery, preservative laden, spice-less chai they served. She asked the cafe owner about trying her chai.
“They had a sample the following week and signed up as my first customer. This is when I remember walking out of the cafe thinking, ‘Do I really want to start a chai company?’ I thought about this and that yes, I could actually rock a chai company and make extra money and have my chai more readily available for my consumption in Boulder,” Eddy recalled.
She launched her business with the name “Bhakti,” which means devotion through social action. She came to understand this meaning from the Swadhyay movement, which she studied while in India.
“When the chai company came to me, it was only natural to build it around Bhakti. I knew I could create a company that was profitable, sustainable, and that invested in social change. I always was so confused why companies couldn’t do all three,” Eddy said. “Now, we hear about triple bottom line companies and the three Ps – People, Planet, Profit – but then it was me thinking, ‘why not? Why not build something meaningful while providing an interesting fresh product reminiscent of India.’”
On the Bhakti website, Eddy tells the story of her learning about Swadhyay movement, including:
“Devotion shouldn’t just be an introverted experience but should be a social force fostering universal family. Societal transformation then derives from this ideal of universal respect and unity, compelling individuals to serve their community by donating two days a month for the good of their community. “
“We started very small,” Eddy told the Denver Post. But, “as we grow our giving grows.” In 2010, Bhakti donations totaled 25 percent of net income, going to groups like the Global Fund for Women and Colorado Youth Matter.
Eddy stayed committed to this business philosophy even after she and her husband divorced in 2007 and she faced supporting her kids as a divorced mother, along with the common challenges of underfinanced start ups.
“The hardest part was being hand to mouth for a long time and feeling so on the edge of not making it due to cash flow issues and not having any investment or loan money for the first two years,” Eddy said. “Banks would not touch us because all they looked at was my credit score. I kept trying to get them to look at our P&L and balance sheet, but they wouldn’t. Didn’t even care how successful we were, only wanted to know my social security number and my assets — which were none.”
Since she couldn’t get traditional funding through banks, Eddy told Reuters, she reached out to her network for funding.
Bhakti Chai was experiencing growing pains in the form of cash flow shortages as increasingly larger accounts put in ever-larger orders, sometimes taking more than a month to pay. After failing to secure bank loans, Eddy drew on her development skills to drum up support from local investors, eventually raising a total of about $250,000. She also tapped Boulder’s enthusiastic network of food entrepreneurs, who were eager to help fill her void in business experience by giving freely of their time.
“It was also hard because I felt alone for the first couple of years – but now I have a great team of employees, advisors, investor members and consultants which makes me feel more balanced and supported.”
That team has helped put Bhakti on a growth path that includes now making chai ice cream, as well as beverages both for consumer and commercial channels. They recently launched a ready-to-drink line of products — bottled already blended with soy milk — in three new Whole Foods regions, adding 80 new stores in Texas, southern California, Arizona, Nevada and Louisiana, as well as Portland and Seattle.
Running a company that’s doubling its sales each year while caring for 7-year-old twins is a juggling act, but Eddy says her children feel part of Bhakti.
“They already have so much pride in Bhakti and in me. Every time we go to Whole Foods they love to tell the check out person that their mother started Bhakti Chai. The reason is that they always get such a fabulous response and they smile so wide feeling like a little celebrity themselves,” she said.
Learn more about Bhakti:
Blogging disclosure: I am rarely unbiased about anything I write about. Think of Newvine Growing as my version of Oprah’s favorite things. In the case of Brook and Bhakti, we’ve been friends with Brook since she worked with my husband, John, more than 10 years ago at Michigan Radio. She’s given us her spicy tea several times. I approached her about a profile several months ago and she offered to help sponsor my blogging efforts, but did not ask for nor did I offer editorial control over what I would write.