This is His Cup of Tea: An Interview with Nikhil Roychowdhury, founder of The Simple Leaf

By: Arnav Sheth

Nikhil Roychowdhury

Once upon a time, in a land far, far away (India), there was a young boy named Nikhil. Although he had everything he wanted, he yearned for a better life. So he decided to come to America and got himself admitted to a small, liberal arts college in the Midwest. He worked hard, graduated and started to work in a consulting firm. In a matter of years, the company had him jet-setting from city to city, hobnobbing with CEOs, CFOs and various other people with important-sounding acronyms after their names. Yet, Nikhil still yearned for a better life.

You see, Nikhil was different. While all his friends from college majored in Economics, Nikhil majored in Anthropology, as well. While his coworkers were drinking venti-hazelnut-soy-extra foam-lattes from a popular coffee store chain, Nikhil preferred tea. In fact, Nikhil’s life was inextricably linked with tea. His father was a trained tea-taster, and Nikhil had spent a meaningful chunk of his childhood in tea gardens at the foothills of the Himalayas. So Nikhil did what many people only dream about. He chucked his high-paying consulting job and decided to pursue his dream. He founded a small, online company called The Simple Leaf and began to sell tea. To Nikhil this was his path to a better life.

Based in Chicago, Nikhil’s company isn’t your usual big-name, tea-toting corporation. It’s an extension of its owner’s philosophy. It is a small, community-oriented organization (he test-drove his idea by offering free samples at the local Farmer’s Market). Most importantly though, his company is a way by which he can lead a balanced life, get closer to his roots and pursue a calling which is part of his family’s history.

Why did you quit your corporate consulting job? The politicking got to you?

I decided to quit because the life of a penniless entrepreneur was calling my name! I guess the fear of regret is something that I didn’t feel like I could live with. As clichéd as it sounds, I wanted to live a more balanced life, enjoy my family and friends, and not feel like I was owned, so to speak, by a corporation. It’s hard to put into words, but I just had to do it. I didn’t want to be on my death bed saying “I wish I had spent more time at the office.”

Basically, you wanted to be your own boss and have the freedom that comes with it?

Yes, to some extent. Although “freedom” is relative! Yes, I can make my own hours now, but I seem to work more now than I ever did when I worked for someone else. Being your own boss might seem glamorous from the outside, but it isn’t all it’s cracked up to be! What’s much more important to me is that I’m creating something from scratch - that I own the whole process. Whether it’s ultimately a success or not, time will tell. But I’ll be able to say that I was responsible for it. That’s comforting to me, in a strange way. Another pleasant side effect from starting a tea business is a ready-made excuse to deepen my roots in India. Having lived in the US for over 12 years, I sometimes feel like a bit of an outsider in my own country. I think I’ve found a good way to immerse myself both personally and professionally in the two cities that I consider home – Calcutta and Chicago.

When did the idea of starting your own business come to you?

As tempting as it is to say that I had a “eureka” moment, I didn’t. The idea evolved around three years ago. At the time, it was just one of those things that I had filed away in the back of my brain along with many others. Starting a national dog-walking, pet-sitting franchise was one such brilliant idea!

Ok, so I’ve been itching to ask you this: Why tea?

It goes without saying that I love the stuff, and I practically grew up surrounded by it, in Calcutta and Darjeeling. I remembered how fascinated I was during my first trip to Darjeeling and my first tour of a tea estate.
I spent every summer as a child in Darjeeling, and endless hours wandering around tea gardens, watching colorfully-dressed tea workers pluck the “two leaves and a bud” of the tea plant.
So the idea of a business involving tea slowly started emerging. Finally last year, after many discussions with friends and family, latency, or perhaps laziness, finally turned to action, and I took the plunge. We started off by getting just a few samples of some excellent tea from my dad which we used to host a “tea tasting” session. We did this at a farmer’s market in Urbana, Illinois. The response I got from people was so overwhelming, I knew there was more to be done and I had to build a business around it.

Your father is a tea-taster, correct?

Yes, he’s a trained tea taster with tons of knowledge about the ins and outs of everything related to tea. He’s worked in several capacities for large corporations before starting his own successful tea blending company. Now his excellent tea tasting and sourcing skills are being put to good use by me. It’s been a tremendous learning experience, and I hope some of his expertise rubs off on me.

So what were people’s reactions when you told them you were quitting a high-paying consulting job to sell tea?

When I first told people I wanted to start a tea company, I got my fair share of incredulous stares. You know, the ones where the listener’s mouth is slightly open and their eyes feign interest and excitement? While they’re thinking “Boy, what an idiot this guy is – quitting a nice consulting gig and opening a tea shop,” somehow they manage to mutter, ‘hmm, sounds interesting?” Yeah, I got a lot of that, and still do. (Laughs)

Talk a little bit about The Simple Leaf. What’s the fundamental idea behind it? What’s the philosophy?

I think our brand name really underscores what we’re all about. Simply put, we want to make really good tea a lot more “user friendly”. Many companies selling ”premium” tea in the US today are marketing tea like a fine wine - an ultra-luxury product that only true connoisseurs can enjoy. They are often over-delivering on prestige and emotional appeal, and under-delivering on freshness and quality. I don’t know why – perhaps there’s a faulty assumption that consumers don’t know any better? Well, I think they do. After all, tea, despite all its complexities, is an everyday drink for millions of people around the world. But it doesn’t mean you have to drink awful tea every day. I want to provide my customers with a fresh, great tasting product without skimping on quality. We can do this because we know where the tea comes from and who grows it, in many cases, personally. We don’t buy our tea from a bulk distributor or a wholesaler in Germany. We won’t carry a million average teas, just a handful of what we think are some of the finest. After that, we want to step out of the way and let our customers be the judge of quality. After all, the true tea experts are our customers, not us.

So you’re trying to bring good tea to the masses, as it were?

Well, I don’t want to refer to my customers as the “masses,” because they’re definitely not! We’re not trying to be a commodity play in the sense of a mass-produced, mass-distributed product that’s going to end up on every grocery store shelf in the US. We’re catering to a much smaller cross-section of the market. I think our customers range from serious tea connoisseurs to people who may drink tea occasionally but have a hard time picking an excellent tea from the thousands of choices available. So rather than have them purchase a mass-produced box of tea bags from their grocery store, we want to step in and fulfill their need for a quality drink.

Finally, what do you think are the top five things a non-tea drinker should know about tea?

1. Tea is the most popular drink in the world after water. I love that one because it shows us that it really is a simple, every-day drink. And who says every day tea shouldn’t be gourmet tea?
2. Like wine, or coffee, there’s a wonderful range of flavors in pure tea. Different regions and processing methods yield distinct flavors which add to the allure of this drink.
3. All tea comes from the same basic plant, called Camellia sinensis, which means “of China.”
4. Tea is good for you.
5. You can use incorporate tea into all kinds of other things – like your favorite cocktail, or even use it as a marinade in cooking.


All opinions expressed by Arnav Sheth are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.

© Stay Thirsty Media, Inc. 2006
All Rights Reserved

Privacy Policy | Terms of Use | Terms of Sale | Site Map


*A PURCHASE IS REQUIRED TO ENTER THE PLAYWRIGHT AWARD CONTEST. Contest ends 2/1/07. Open to US legal residents of the 50 US and DC, who are 18 years or older at time of entry. Subject to Official Rules. VOID WHERE PROHIBITED.