Success story: Chai Pani and the art of branding through storytelling

ON THE ROAD: Chai Pani chefs, from left, James Grogan and Daniel Peach, spent 10 hectic days in 2013 traveling through India sampling street food with owner Meherwan Irani, right. Chai Pani Restaurant Group Brand Director Michael Files filmed the adventure to create the Cutting Chai documentary, which debuted in Asheville in early November.
ON THE ROAD: Chai Pani chefs, from left, James Grogan and Daniel Peach, spent 10 hectic days in 2013 traveling through India sampling street food with owner Meherwan Irani, right. Chai Pani Restaurant Group Brand Director Michael Files filmed the adventure to create the Cutting Chai documentary, which debuted in Asheville in early November. Photo courtesy of Michael Files

Since it opened in 2009, Asheville Indian street food joint Chai Pani has evolved from the humble creation of Meherwan and Molly Irani to a critically acclaimed multibrand restaurant group on the brink of exploding onto the national scene.

As the chef, Meherwan now boasts two James Beard Award nominations, and Chai Pani has been praised by the likes of The New York Times, GQ and Bon Appétit. With its success, the restaurant has expanded into the Chai Pani Restaurant Group, which features an impressive portfolio — a second Chai Pani location in Decatur, Ga., the Indo-Persian-(Parsi) themed Botiwalla in Atlanta and Asheville-based hotspots Buxton Hall Barbecue and MG Road Lounge.

With the hard-earned growth of its brick-and-mortar operations and an effective combination of national media coverage and in-house marketing savvy, CPRG has caught the attention of television producers, publishing executives, potential investors and business partners, all eager to tap into the buzzing energy of a brand on the rise.

Weathering the storm of success

Facing a whirlwind of new opportunity is a fortunate situation, no doubt, and an interesting one for any brand, artist or individual to navigate. The experience is almost paradoxical, in that the joy and exhilaration of success and growth is met equally by the anxiety and struggle that come from facing new, difficult challenges and questions.

Evolving gracefully, intentionally and authentically seems to require a tremendous level of focus and discipline and a commitment to maintaining the core essence and values that generated the success in the first place. But there’s also a need for creative thinking, shifting strategies and an element of risk taking that seems to be fundamental to growth and evolution.

Chai Pani Restaurant Group brand director, partner and jack-of-all-trades Michael Files frequently ponders this unique situation. “It’s something we’ve thought a lot about. Do we want mainstream success? Are we excited by it or worried about it becoming an untamable beast one day? There is an unabashed thrill in growing and sharing our restaurants with more and more people and being more financially stable, but we are pretty vigilant about keeping our ‘feel’ right,” says Files. “With all of the opportunities coming at us, we kind of want to do them all, but we also know what we like and what we don’t like. It’s a jungle figuring it out.”

With a little help from my friends

Chai Pani Restaurant Group isn’t riding the wave of success alone. “What’s cool is that we hear a lot from other Asheville businesses and other peers that are also growing,” says Files, who’s emphatically grateful to be entrenched in such a supportive and inspiring environment.

“For example, I think we feel a big kinship with French Broad Chocolates as far as growth goes,” says Files. “Theirs is an amazing Asheville success story from the ground up, and we confer with [owners Dan and Jael Rattigan] a lot about the different challenges we face with growth while maintaining our core values.”

Files also counts Katie Button and Felix Meana, owners of Cúrate and Nightbell, among local restaurateurs who share similar growth aspirations and challenges. And the owners of Atlanta-based Farmburger, he says, can also relate. Along with having a popular Asheville location, “They are our next-door neighbors [in Atlanta], and we confer often about growth,” Files explains. “They are growing rapidly, but it’s always comforting to have discussions with them where they have the same concerns: How to grow but keep things meaningful?”

These business owners, he notes, all of whom are enjoying big press nationwide, are all taking a similar approach. “No one has gotten McDonald’s involved yet to invest millions and open 20 stores in a year. I think even with guys that are on the national scene, like David Chang with Momofuku, his growth has been very organic too. I think it’s a hallmark of this particular time in the culinary world. There are a lot of places that have made big splashes for the right reasons, and they are all trying to grow in meaningful ways. It’s heartwarming when you think about it really,” says Files.

Conscious storytellers

Although CPRG now oversees several restaurants, it all began with the careful cultivation and execution of Chai Pani in Asheville. For Meherwan, Molly and Files, central to Chai Pani’s initial growth, current success and future strategy is the view of themselves as storytellers. Every detail — from the physical construction of the restaurant to their social media marketing strategy — has been a conscious effort to reflect the unique stories of their own lives and the grand tale of the Indian street food tradition that dates back thousands of years.

This storytelling effort is in no way forced, though. Rather it seems to be a natural byproduct of Meherwan’s and Files’ shared life experience — a story in itself that stems from their meeting each other as children in India. Meherwan’s family lived in a community that was attached to a spiritual ashram that was frequently visited by Americans and other foreigners, including Files’ parents.

“Meherwan had all of these cultural influences from an early age,” says Files — not only with the connection to the ashram, but with his own peculiar heritage. Growing up the child of a Parsi father and a Hindu mother is not commonly seen, and it instilled within Meherwan an appreciation for differences in food, culture and the stories behind them.

“There’s no template for street food in India,” Meherwan adds. “It evolves to meet the needs of the people, but it does so with this vibrancy and this energy and this life force to it. For me personally, capturing that and encapsulating it somehow in this thing that is Chai Pani is what drives me. It’s not just the food; it is the feeling, the energy of India. I know I can’t take every Chai Pani customer to India to experience it, so our mission is to bring back as much of that as we can and do our best to provide that nourishment not just with the food, but with the soul of India.”

A digital world

Online content has been a big part of Chai Pani’s branding from the beginning, says Files. The restaurant jumped on the social media scene early, when Facebook and Twitter were still relatively new as marketing tools for businesses, creating a buzz on those platforms before the eatery even opened.

Since then, Files and Chai Pani have particularly embraced the use of digital video content as a device for telling stories in an authentic way. Since Chai Pani’s 2009 launch, Files has spearheaded the production of over 20 original videos for the various CPRG restaurants, including an eight-part web series in connection with Bulleit Bourbon called Libation Migration and an ambitious 59-minute documentary film about the Indian street food scene called Cutting Chai.

“Because of the quickness [with which] quality content can be created and disseminated and how easily someone’s story can be captured and shared with the world, it feels like it is actually a ripe environment for chefs to flourish if they have something interesting to put out there,” says Files; in the case of CPRG, it’s the mixture of intriguing food stories and the charismatic personalities of Meherwan, Files and other key team members.

Meherwan was already tapped for a potential TV show last year, which fizzled after he shot the pilot in Mexico. But the experience led him “to some lasting friendships and contacts in that world, and lately there’s been even more coming in — people with ideas of what they want to do with us on TV,” says Files.

Cutting Chai

The production of a nearly hour-long documentary film is no small task, let alone one filmed predominantly over the course of 10 days in the hectic streets of 10 different cities in India. And in the case of Cutting Chai, bold plans have bold origins. The project originally started as a clever scheme of Files’ to finagle his way into a trip to India — a trip that was initially intended for Meherwan and Chai Pani Asheville and Decatur chefs James Grogan and Daniel Peach.

Grogan and Peach were two of the first four people hired in the Chai Pani kitchen when the restaurant opened. “They both were so instrumental to the whole story of Chai Pani,” says Files. “Meherwan actually flew his mom over here to teach them how to cook family recipes.” But Grogan had never been to India, so Meherwan planned a culinary expedition in September 2013 in which the two of them and Peach would eat their way across the country.

“Basically, I was like, ‘Guys, I gotta come along and film this, and I think you should get me a plane ticket,'” says Files with a chuckle. “So I really just weaseled my way in at first, but it quickly became ‘Oh, wow, this will actually be amazing.'”

Although Files admits the filming process was a bit of a logistical nightmare, he looks back on the overall experience fondly. He’s particularly grateful for the countless hours of editing work his younger brother, Daniel Files, contributed to the project. In the end, what comes through with Cutting Chai is a one-of-a-kind look at the journey of four friends, each of whom comes away with a newfound appreciation for the culture and tradition at the heart Chai Pani’s story.

The full documentary, which consists of 10 short episodes, made its world premiere at the Atlanta Film Festival in March and debuted in Asheville at The Grail Moviehouse in November. Another public showing is planned for Feb. 17 in Oxford, Miss., where the Chai Pani team will partner with Indian chef and James Beard Award semifinalist Vishwesh Batt to prepare food for guests.

Files also says that the individual episodes of Cutting Chai are destined to roll out online, hopefully by the beginning of January. For updates, stay tuned to Chai Pani social media channels or check out cuttingchaimovie.com.

Doubling down

Files and the CPRG team have plans to continue controlling their story through the creation of original online video content. Getting a studio space is the first thing on the list. “The idea is to build a kitchen where we can film whatever we want and develop more content. It will be our own little Chai Pani Studios,” says Files.

The group will also add new team members to focus solely on video production. The goal is to release one drink video and one cooking video per week starting in January for Chai Pani’s YouTube channel (youtube.com/chaipanichannel). “We’re really looking forward to building these fun and easy-to-follow instructional videos that can hopefully gain an audience online,” says Files. He adds that the studio space will also house a completely new business venture for the group, but he says it’s too early for an official comment on what it will be, other than something “very exciting and ambitious.”

Other big news is that Files and company are laying the groundwork for Cutting Chai 2. The team is planning to go back to India with an even crazier travel and filming schedule than they pulled off in 2013. Filming will take place in February or March, and video content will be released in real time via social media channels and YouTube. “It will be a challenge, but I have a filmmaker friend who specializes in this kind of thing who we are hiring to come along and help pull it off,” says Files. Look for updates on the project on social media in the coming months.

In the meantime, Files, Meherwan and the CPRG team are continuing to field opportunities from outside partners and put together their own projects independently. Either way, they’re committed to staying true to themselves and only pursuing opportunities that are in line with their own core vision.

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About Nick Wilson
Nick Wilson is a free spirited guy who enjoys curious adventures and seeing his consciousness evolve. A native of the Midwest, he attended Indiana University and recently moved to Asheville after 8 years in Los Angeles to focus on writing and deliberate creation. Follow me @njdwo

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