Raised in Darjeeling, it’s little wonder that Kaushal Dugar lives and breathes tea. With his family in the tea business (his father used to supply tea plantations with mechanical equipment and his brother runs a tea export business in Dubai), it was inevitable that Dugar too would find his way into the trade. He, however, took a circuitous route, via a stint as a strategy consultant at KPMG in Singapore. It evidently stood him in good stead because he launched Teabox, an online direct-to-consumer tea brand.
“Coming from a family that has been in the industry, I had great exposure to some very good teas. But in all the time I spent outside India, I never got the same kind of tea. I realized that by the time the tea reached the end consumer, there was complete deterioration in its quality,” says Dugar.
The Indian tea industry is around two centuries old. Unfortunately, it is not a simple garden-to-cup equation and a long supply chain featuring a network of intermediaries, including auction houses and exporter wholesalers, leads to inevitable degradation in the freshness and quality of tea. “The idea was to bridge this gap and ensure that tea consumers, no matter where they are in the world, get access to the freshest teas. When I came back to India in 2011, I realized that no one had focused on that part of the market. So I decided to create a direct-to-consumer brand, and that’s how Teabox began,” says Dugar.
Founded in 2012, it supplies tea to more than 100 countries around the world—85% of Teabox’s orders are from outside India. The company sources tea from more than 150 plantations across Darjeeling, Assam, Kangra, the Nilgiris and Nepal. The leaves are plucked and taken to Teabox’s processing unit in Siliguri, where they are treated, packaged and stored, ready to be shipped—all within a week of plucking. “We are right at the source and can get the tea from the plantation in a short period of time,” says Dugar. They process it in a temperature-controlled environment and improve the quality by removing all the impurities. Then it is vacuum-packed and kept in cold storage before being sent onwards to consumers. This careful processing maintains quality and freshness all along the way.
And that’s not a tall claim. Teabox has India’s first state-of-the-art cold storage facility for tea. “Apart from air and oxygen, temperature is another enemy that affects the quality of tea. We had to figure out how to store tea at a temperature that maintains its freshness, so we set up the cold storage facility,” explains Dugar.
Another first for Teabox is the innovative TeaPac—individually packaged tea bags sealed at source using a natural nitrogen flush that keeps tea fresh by protecting it from moisture, heat, light and oxygen. Teabox is the first beverage company in the world to use this packaging method, which is commonly used in the food industry. “Earlier, we sold loose leaf tea in 100g packs. But we realized that 90% of the market prefers tea bags,” says Dugar. The shape of traditional tea bags, filled with broken tea leaves and their dust, is not conducive to releasing a tea’s full flavour potential. “It took us some time to figure out the process through our own in-house R&D to come up with nitrogen flushing for tea bags,” elaborates Dugar. TeaPacs also features a modern, pyramid-shaped tea bag that allows adequate headspace for the loose leaves to unfurl, allowing the tea to brew to its full potential.
Dugar decided to start with an online platform because it allowed him to reach consumers around the world. “Given that this kind of tea has a greater demand in foreign markets, an online business was the way to go,” he adds. Currently, the teas are available via their website (Teabox.com). Teabox also has a shop-in-shop outlet at the Cinnamon boutique in Bengaluru and the teas are also available in a few high-end cafés in Bengaluru, Chennai and Kochi. Dugar also plans on making Teabox products available at stores such as Foodhall and Nature’s Basket, as well as in supermarket chains outside India.
Dugar adds that while the tea market in India is dominated by chai, there are dedicated tea drinkers with a developed palate, a knowledge of the seasonal flushes, varietals, and a taste for pure teas. “We are not targeting all the chai drinkers of the country, and it is good enough for us that although our market is small, it is also growing at a fast pace.”