Chai is something that you’ll see on coffee shop menus around the city, but to sisters Sukaina and Sayyeda Ebrahim, the chai tea bags they found in stores weren’t up to par. Influenced by their Indian and Tanzanian roots, they founded Elchi Chai Shop to bring authentic chai to Toronto and introduce a new flavour to the city’s cultural palate.
The pair opened the restaurant with family support and the desire to brew strong chai. Selling drinks alone was not enough to cover rent, Sukaina Ebrahim told The Varsity in an interview, so they introduced a menu where they sold various items, including their mom’s paratha recipe.
The restaurant officially closed its storefront on January 30, 2022, but Sukaina explains that there are plans to continue selling their products online. She explained that trying to work on their online business while also continuing to run the restaurant through the pandemic was taxing and difficult to maintain.
“There’s a lockdown every few months… and it really, really disrupts small businesses,” she said. “Because of all of this, we could only afford so much staff, so we still had to work [in] the restaurant.”
Sukaina explained how, after closing the storefront, they can now focus all their efforts on getting their product into the market. “The tea itself is very dear to us,” she said, emphasizing that they wanted to give their loyal customers the opportunity to make their own chai at home. Some of the items they are hoping to sell include their classic chai recipe, chai spices, and eventually iced chai and cold drinks.
The sidelining of small businesses
With lockdown after lockdown, Sukaina described that it was difficult to keep revenues high. She and her sister were experiencing burnout as they worked tirelessly to keep their doors open.
To support small businesses, the Canadian government introduced the Canada Emergency Business Account for small businesses in April 2020, which originally offered an interest-free loan of $40,000 to small businesses. If the loan was repaid by December 31, 2022, 25 per cent of the total would be forgiven.
The sisters took out the loan in 2020 to help support their business, but realized they needed to pay back approximately $1,000 a month to meet the December 31 deadline. “If you’re taking out a loan of $40,000, you’re not in a position to pay back $1,000 a month. The numbers don’t work,” Sukaina said.
Sukaina also expressed her frustration with other COVID-19 relief programs such as the Canada Emergency Commercial Rent Assistance program, which was introduced in April 2020. The program provided loans to landlords to support their small business tenants in paying rent. This program required landlords to apply for the loan, while tenants could only hope that their landlord would deem it necessary.
Remembering the community
Sukaina expressed her gratitude for their customers and the regulars at the restaurant. “The one thing we’re going to miss the most are the people, both our customers and our residents in the area,” she said. “People for the last two years have made it a point to order from us at least once or twice a week, just to support [us].”
The restaurant’s impact on the Toronto and U of T community will be long-lasting. There is currently a GoFundMe to support Elchi Chai Shop as the sisters work to continue providing their products to the community.