From retail to selling chiya

Most migrants buy land or build houses with their earning but a Dubai-returnee came back empty handed to launch tea business

This is the 41st instalment of Diaspora Diaries, a regular series in Nepali Times with stories of Nepalis living and working abroad.

Even as a kid, I could feel my family's standard of living improve when my father left for Iraq after a failed trucking business in Nepal.

It crept up in small ways. Instead of five rupees for lunch money, I now got ten. Or the clothes my mother bought me were of a better quality. Birthday celebrations got bigger.

Immediately after Iraq, he hopped on a plane to the UAE to work at an Abu Dhabi-based hospital as a supervisor of security guards. It was a relatively easy job, and he earned well.

I am not sure why, but the UAE has fascinated me ever since. I suppose part of it has to do with familiarity, as I watched YouTube videos from a young age to learn more about the country where my father was working.

When family members encouraged me to go to Australia or the UK for further studies, I figured the UAE was a better option as I did not want to spend my father's hard earned money to go elsewhere. I was well aware of his struggle and sacrifice, and the UAE felt like a better fit for financial reasons.

After my 12th, I headed to the UAE on a family visa that my father arranged. On my second day in Dubai, I passed a walk-in interview for a salesman job at a retail store. I also did my bachelors in business administration over weekends at Jaipur University.

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I was hired as a salesman at a clothing company, but most of my responsibilities were that of a stock boy. One day I got the chance to showcase my salesmanship to the higher ups at a sales event at the World Trade Centre in Dubai. Impressed, they pushed me to take on more front-desk sales related tasks.

I outperformed my peers, but I was not satisfied. My next goal was to become a store manager. I took it upon myself to learn various skills including bookkeeping, merchandising, setting schedules of staff and preparing sales reports. To learn these skills, I arrived at the store before opening and left after closing. Those extra hours did not translate to overtime pay, and I left the store only to sleep.

I soon saw the fruits of my labour when my sales numbers landed me opportunities to train new hirees at the company headquarters. The networking allowed me to get a store manager job at our branch at the Ibn Battuta Mall.

We Nepalis are indeed a hard-working, honest bunch, and there is a reason why we have built a strong reputation abroad amongst employers.

I did not get to meet my father much because he was based in Abu Dhabi and I was in Dubai. His schedule was more flexible, so he would sometimes come to see me and we would go eat at Nepali restaurants.

I did not share my struggles in the UAE with my father, I just wanted him to know the happy bits.

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Life in Dubai was not easy. There were 8 of us from five nationalities crammed into a small room. I decided with a Nepali that I got along with to get our own place. It was a tiny 7 by 4.5 feet room that had just enough space for a bunk bed and a tiny fridge. We lived frugally, a large chunk of my earnings went on rent and school fees.

Living paycheck by paycheck for me meant starting off the month strong and running dry as it ended. Towards the end of the month, I would have to resort to loans from friends, or I had to stop eating out and innovate to make food last longer by adding water to fried lentils bought in the market for one dirham, or living off white rice and fried sausages, which cost peanuts.

After the store manager job, I started dreaming bigger. I was transferred to the head office and had my eyes on the area manager role. But I also had other aspirations that would interrupt my career progression -- I started toying with the idea of returning to Nepal.

I was in my mid-20s, and there was pressure to get married and have children. With those added responsibilities, I would not be able to choose a risky career path like entrepreneurship, my calling. I had witnessed what was possible with hard work in Dubai during my 3.5 years there. I figured if I failed in Nepal, I could always return again for a job.

It was not easy to convince my family, they wanted me to head to greener pastures like the US or Australia and not return to Nepal.

Many returning Nepalis who muster the courage to call it quits and come home usually backed by savings accumulated abroad. Not me. I had no savings, only courage. 

I had learnt to work hard in Dubai, and had built the confidence to deal with people from diverse backgrounds. Even as I took my Nepal-bound flight, I knew that I would be coming back to Dubai one day, either as a tourist or for a job. I knew this wasn’t the final goodbye to the place that had been home.

In Nepal I tried my hand at two different clothing lines, given my retail background. On a trip to India to buy fabric for our clothing business, Jama Store, I remember waiting in line for tea every morning at a tea stall.

Chhotu, the young tea seller, drew quite a crowd every morning. Intrigued, my friend Ritu Karmacharya and I spoke with Chhotu who excitedly demonstrated to us how he prepares his tea, and what makes it so special.

This struck a chord, and we considered the possibility of starting a tea place in Nepal. We also noticed many classy tea cafes in India as we walked around. Once we returned, we visited places in Nepal and realised that there was scope for this venture in Nepal as well.

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Ritu's sister, a USA returnee, also suggested that there were such elegant tea places in New York with vibrant Moroccan decor and floor seating arrangements, and she encouraged us to pursue something similar.

We had no money, so I reached out to my family members in Kuwait and the UAE who agreed to become part investors. We found a vacant place in Kumaripati and renovated it.

Chiya Spot was born and we started selling tea. Our special? Chhotu's tea in honor of the boy from Delhi who inspired us.

At first, we made do with three or four packets of milk every day to serve our customers. But unbeknownst to us, the famous food vlogger Mr Foodie Nepal featured our café. It blew up on social media and we started getting loads of customers. We could not keep up and had to expand our space to accommodate more customers. 

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Most recently, we have also opened a new branch in Boudha. While the Kumaripati branch is inspired by Moroccan/Jaipuri decor, the cafe in Boudha is inspired by Middle Eastern design, in particular from Dubai.

I remember going to Dubai Gold Souk whenever I had a few hours off to relax in the market and grab a bite with a friend at a Nepali restaurant. Now, I have brought a little piece of Old Dubai back home to Nepal at the new café, to be enjoyed with karak chai that is famous there.

While the vlogger Foodie Nepal's post helped draw customers to Kumaripati, my sisters’ social media posts on the Boudha branch went accidentally viral on TikTok. We got so many customers that it got unmanageable, and this even translated to angry posts and reviews as people were not happy with the wait. We were expecting our customer base to increase organically over time, not overnight.

Such is the power of social media. For both good and bad. We quickly added staff and are learning every day to improve our service.  

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I had never, in my wildest imagination, thought I would be leaving retail to sell tea one day. But both branches are doing well, Insallah. We try to create a space for people to relax over tea, conversations, or board games without putting pressure on them to leave or order more items.

As long as people are happy, the customer volume or finances will automatically work themselves out, as they have over the past three years.  We want to fill the niche left by restaurants that either offer great ambience or reasonable prices, which we don’t believe have to be mutually exclusive.

Many migrants spend a large chunk of their remittances to buy land or build houses in Nepal. I returned to Nepal empty-handed. But with my earnings here, I have managed to contribute significantly to my parent's new house, and I could not be prouder.

Diaspora Diaries is a regular column in Nepali Times providing a platform to share experiences of living, working, studying abroad. Authentic and original entries can be sent to [email protected] with Diaspora Diaries in the subject line.