Chai is harmony in a cup. Smooth, with tantalizing hints of spice and sweetness in perfect balance, chai is a complete, complex expression of tea. In Hindi, “chai” means tea, and in India, where chaiwallas brew chai on street corners, chai is a way of life.
In 2012, when Chaikhana Chai owner Dawn Lewis set about perfecting her recipe for an authentic chai brewed with fresh, organic ingredients, the former pattern-maker-turned-café-owner brought patience, precision, perseverance—and a soulful pursuit of balance—to the task. The Seattle native also employed her pragmatic method of breaking a challenge down to its simplest elements. “I started with a Tetley tea bag, a scale, and a three-gallon kettle,” she says.
Ten years later, her Kennett Square-brewed chai concentrate is in demand around the country—and the world. Dawn spends weekdays brewing and shipping her original vanilla chai, green tea chai, and masala spicy chai to distributors, cafés, and retail outlets. Customers from near and far have discovered Chaikhana Chai on Amazon.
On weekends, Dawn opens the delightful Chaikhana Chai Brewing Station Café to welcome locals to enjoy a wide selection of chai drinks as well as espresso drinks, smoothies, baked goods, breakfast sandwiches, and more in the beautifully restored 1903 trolley station. Customers can also purchase Chaikhana Chai concentrate to make chai at home. The space, with its original brickwork and arched windows, is somehow both soaring and intimate, light-filled and cozy—an ambiance that perfectly reflects the harmony inside the cup.
Why Chaikhana Chai
Dawn opened the well-loved Caffe Craze, in the Malvern train depot, in 1997. When she began investigating how she could create real, craft-brewed chai to serve to Caffe Craze customers, instant chai powder was trending. Now, she says, it’s the opposite. The growing demand for Chaikhana Chai reflects the fact that people are excited about an all-natural product.
Dawn brews her chai with fresh organic ginger from Peru, organic loose tea, and freshly crushed whole spices like cinnamon, cardamom, pepper, and vanilla beans. “It’s like a tea stew,” she says with a smile. Once it’s filtered into a clear tea, she adds organic wildflower honey and a little bit of brown sugar to bring out the rich molasses flavor. The dairy- and gluten-free concentrate is also low in sugar. “The honey adds texture and slowness,” she says. “It doesn’t leave a syrupy taste on your tongue.” She’s also concocted recipes showcasing the versatility of chai. Chai adds depth, heat, and sweetness to everything from warming drinks with fall flavors like pumpkin and apple to cool summer spritzers and cocktails.
Once she’d refined the recipe, her next challenge was to scale production to meet the demand. To do this, she needed a facility where she could brew larger batches. In the early days, she packed her car full of cases of ginger, tea, and spices and drove seven hours to a facility in southern Vermont, where she brewed and bottled the chai before driving back home. This worked well—until she encountered a January blizzard. She found a facility in Maryland where she brewed for the next five years. “I worked with their crew to develop the process and perfected the time, temperature, and volumes for 450-gallon batches. It’s the same recipe I perfected in three-gallon batches—I just use 130 pounds of ginger instead of two and a half,” she says with a smile.
It became increasingly evident that not having control over her own production facility was her weakest link. So she started looking for space, and “Kennett Square kept calling me,” she says. In the fall of 2018, she stepped into the debris-strewn historic trolley station at 227 Birch Street next to what is now Braeloch Brewing. She saw beyond the peeling plaster, cinder blocks, and boarded-up windows to pure possibility. “I knew this was it!” she says.
“Bravery leads to success”
The challenge of converting a derelict 1903 trolley station into a customized full-scale production facility for brewing chai seems tailor-made for this self-confessed “machine geek” with a proactive determination to figure things out. The project required ingenuity, tenacity, and a series of courageous decisions.
“This building became the thesis of my business experience,” Dawn says, “taking a product I developed, marketing it, and bringing it into production. I’ve drawn from my management experience and everything I’ve learned—and it taught me construction.”
She quickly learned more than she knew she didn’t know about plumbing, wiring, HVAC, materials, and more. “I ask lots of questions, and I found contractors who were willing to educate me and listen to me with respect as I explained my vision,” she says. From the 120-year-old floor, which they were able to preserve by filling the cracks, sanding it down, and finishing with polyurethane, to the ductwork above, every detail has been thoughtfully considered. “I’m not a perfectionist, but I am a thorough-ist,” Dawn says. “Everything should be thoroughly done.”
Being located in a flood zone added another layer of complexity to the design. All of the furnishings and finishes—from the waterproof drywall to the metal studs and siding, raised electrical outlets, and small platform for the fireplace—are both aesthetically pleasing and practical. When Hurricane Ida hit last September, “We got four inches of water. It was a mess to clean up but there was no damage,” Dawn says.
The same inventive collaboration with experts went into creating the bespoke brewing system. “What I needed was so far out of the box I didn’t even know there was a box I was supposed to be in,” she says, laughing. “I had an idea and I had to find people to help me make it work.”
Because she didn’t want a forklift, M&P Fabrication helped her make the appropriate modifications to a hoist. Chester-Jensen Co. in Chester, one of the oldest stainless steel manufacturers in the country, helped her figure out how to modify the kind of tank used by soup and pasta manufacturers for her needs. Dawn is also grateful to Behr Electric in Oxford. “I had very specific requirements, and they did a beautiful job.” Vince Stancato Plumbing designed the complicated system of pipes up near the ceiling. “It’s like artwork,” she says. Sometimes she had to seek assistance further afield to meet her unique needs, and Bryan Steam in Indiana were able to create a low-pressure boiler that never runs out of steam.
All of this work progressed slowly but surely through the fall of 2019 and into the spring of 2020. Meanwhile, Dawn continued brewing chai in Maryland and running the café in Malvern. In March 2020, when the trains stopped running, “COVID took the 25-year-old Caffe Craze,” she says. In June 2020, she received a grant from the Chester County Main Street Preservation Grant Funding Program and cried tears of immense gratitude as it meant she could pay her contractors.
“Bravery leads to success,” Dawn says as she looks around at the space she once only envisioned. She’s witness to how important it is to take a risk. “It’s so magical in here—the perfect combination of a vision, listening, and learning. I’m in awe of the opportunity, grateful I could pull it off, and ready to continue expanding my chai business.”
Chaikhana Chai Brewing Station—and Café
During the pandemic shutdown, Dawn missed serving people and started to think about the broader potential for her production facility on Birch Street. “My friend Jen from Mushrooms Café in Chadds Ford helped me organize and choreograph a kitchen,” she says. The kitchen enabled her to expand the café menu beyond baked goods at the chai and espresso bar and also led to another diversified use for the space.
The fully certified kitchen is equipped with a full-sized double convection oven and available during the week as a commissary-type kitchen to other small businesses. Chaikhana Chai can also host small private events of fifteen to thirty people in the beautiful café space and outdoor seating area.
“There are so many opportunities and potential avenues for growth,” she says, “I have to remind myself that I’m a chai manufacturer first and stay focused on brewing my product.”
Although she’s been in the hospitality industry for decades, Dawn’s gracious instinct to think first about the needs of those who come into Chaikhana Chai comes from a deeper place even than those years of experience. Everything on the menu is as healthy and delicious as it can be, served in beautiful surroundings with joy and care.
Dawn also carefully crafts the Chaikhana Chai experience for the local high school students she employs on weekends in the café and after school during the week packing and shipping chai. She loves teaching and supporting young people and witnessing their delight and satisfaction in accomplishing something they’ve never done. “This is a first job for most of these students. They learn customer service and barista skills plus how to assess what the situation warrants and work as a team to accomplish what’s best for the customer and/or the café,” she says. “I’m very detailed, but then they get it and I can walk away. And the customers love the kids.”
They’re learning balance, building courage outside their comfort zones, serving harmony in a cup.
Chaikhana Chai Brewing Station Café is open on Saturdays and Sundays between 8am and 2:30pm.
Photos by Dylan Francis.