The Tea Shelf

The Tea Shelf: A Historical Family Business Tackles the Digital Marketing Age
Hand-picked whole-leaf teas and handcrafted flavoured blends. Image courtesy of The Tea Shelf.

The Tea Shelf is among India’s most successful pioneers in the e-commerce for tea. Since launching in 2015, they have grown their business by delivering high-quality tea blends to online consumers directly from their estates in Assam and creating blends from various estates in North and South India.

Their e-commerce business occupies a singular position in the tea industry – a new enterprise with a historical precedent for success. While The Tea Shelf is only entering its fourth year of operations, the family business that serves as its foundation is more than 130 years old.

The great-great-grandfather of the company’s founder and CEO Atulit Chokhani migrated from what is now the Indian State of Rajasthan in the late 1890s in search of opportunity. He travelled east to colonial India’s hub for commercial activity, to what was then called “the North-East Frontier”. Eventually, he found his calling and took up work on a tea plantation.

The Chokhanis started a modest tea plantation at the end of the 19th century, which grew to become a publicly traded company by 1920. From 1956 onwards, they augmented the business with a small but innovative engineering unit where they manufactured machinery for the tea industry.

Currently, the family business produces nearly 2.5 million kg of tea from 1,000 hectares of verdant tea fields at the foot of the Himalayas. In addition, the family also trades approximately 2 million kg to the Middle East, China, UK and Japan.

Where others might have opted to simply maintain the business that defined familial success over six generations, Atulit Chokhani saw an opportunity in the changing consumer habits of tea drinkers across India and around the world and decided to launch The Tea Shelf.

The decision to enter the e-commerce space didn’t come without risk. In 2015, running an online business had become the norm in North America, Europe and East Asia. However, this was not yet the case in South-Asian markets. Indian e-commerce was still in its nascence and a true marketing challenge.