The Humble Journey of Calmer Chai & The People That Love It.
Calmer Chai has a very special birthday coming up: we are turning twenty one. Not exactly a “go-raging in Vegas” kinda twenty one, but perhaps something a tad more soft, sophisticated and nourishing (kinda like our chai!).
We sat down with the chai goddess herself (Owner & Founder Caitlin West) to reflect on the past two decades of creating fantastic soul-soothing fresh chai. We discovered the key behind her success, the struggles and challenges of running a small business, and the joy that comes with being brave enough to follow your dreams.
Q: So, Calmer is turning 21. What emotions are you feeling right now?
Caitlin: Amazed, delighted and without wanting to sound like too much of a cliche - grateful and blessed (groan). But I do feel these emotions. I have always felt and continue to feel so grateful to have a job that I love and that I’m immensely proud of. To think that after 21 years our loyal sippers are still sipping away…it is so heartwarming! Plain and simple I love what I do and what I’ve created. It feels so humbling to know that I’m putting something out there that has a positive impact on people's lives; even if only in a small way while they take a moment for themselves with their favourite chai.
“To think that after 21 years our loyal sippers are still sipping away…it is so heartwarming!”
Stage 1 of building our production kitchen - 2014.
Q: Can you tell us how and where it all began? The origin story, if you will.
Caitlin: I was 19, a free-spirited drifter who fell upon my first chai at Confest - an alternative bush festival. It was love at first sip and fast became part of my daily ritual. I experimented with recipes at home purely because that’s what I’ve always done, get messy and creative in the kitchen. Fast forward a few years and I decided to take my blend to my local cafe to see what they thought. Back then most cafe owners didn't even know what chai was and the only cafe menu you’d find it on was one in Byron Bay! My product was met with such curiosity and positivity that I quickly realised that it had the potential to really be something.
And so my side hustle began, which quickly became my full time gig. Funny to think that back in the early days I had wondered if chai was going to be a passing fad and if my business would really have longevity. The fact that I (and so many others) still have a chai as part of their daily ritual, certainly suggests otherwise!
“My product was met with such curiosity and positivity that I quickly realised that it had the potential to really be something.”
Q: After all these years in business, what is the greatest thing you have learned or taken away?
Caitlin: So much! With no background or education in business I learned on the job. I think teaching myself to let go of work at the end of the day (as opposed to having 3am brainstorming sessions in my mind) is so important and is a tool I still have to consciously put in place. To turn off all the work tabs on the computer, refrain from checking emails in the evening is crucial as it can become all-consuming and start being the number one thing that defines and dictates your life.
I’ve also learned and am still harnessing the skill that working hard and fast (my default setting) is not always the most efficient way to do business. Sitting back, taking a break, doing meditation, are all great ways to stay focused and present. This way I can make much more considered decisions. And finally, I’ve learned that I am steering a ship that I can take in any direction I want to. There is no predestined end-point and knowing this feels so liberating and thrilling.
“I am steering a ship that I can take in any direction I want to. There is no predestined end-point and knowing this feels so liberating and thrilling.”
Q: Can you tell us a little bit about your team, your relationship with them and if it’s a conscious decision to keep things small and close-knit?
Caitlin: Man, I have the best team! Yes it’s definitely a conscious decision to keep things close-knit. The majority of our team are friends of friends, or family, who all end up becoming part of what we call our ‘Calmer Family’. I love working with amazing women too (not exclusively!). The business is so honest and authentic and we attract the right working bees. Our production kitchen has become quite the therapy room over the years where many important issues are discussed, problems shared, laughter had, and tears shed within those 4 walls while the staff lovingly create our products. We have (and have had) some bloody legends work for Calmer Chai and we tend to attract passionate, caring & creative souls which makes for a rich and warm workplace. Love my staff!
“Our production kitchen has become quite the therapy room over the years where many important issues are discussed, problems shared, laughter had, and tears shed…”
Q: We’ve heard through the grapevine that Calmer Sutra is getting a bit of a facelift. Can you elaborate?
Caitlin: Yes, I am beyond excited about this brand refresh that we have been working SO hard on for the last year or so. It’s quite a radical facelift but it feels right and like a natural evolution as our business grows and evolves. We worked with a consultant to really get down to the nitty gritty of who we are, what we stand for and what our promise is to our community. From there we rebuilt what was already great but something that felt more aligned with our values. Our new look feels really fun, playful and inspiring and I think will really help people create space for calm and creativity. It will be launched very, very soon and I can’t wait!!
The original Calmer packaging - 2013.
Q: What advice would you give to anyone else out there wanting to start their own business?
Caitlin: First things first, ask yourself if your product or service is innovative and does it create a solution to a problem? And if it’s not the first of its kind, what does it do better (or differently) than your competitors? This becomes your purpose, your selling point and your point of difference.
Secondly, back yourself. Just do it - it’s easy to procrastinate and it’s a bit similar to waiting for the perfect time to have kids - it never comes! Sometimes you just need to bite the bullet and take a leap of faith! Find staff (when you have the resources) to do the parts of the business that are your weakness. For example, if you are not good with numbers enlist some help to determine your product costs & required margins for a sustainable and viable business. And finally work smart and hard…but mostly smart!
“Sometimes you just need to bite the bullet and take a leap of faith!”
Q: Career-wise, if it wasn’t chai, what would it be?
Caitlin: It would always be me being a business owner as I’m not reliable enough to be an employee haha! I walk to the beat of my own drum a little too much and need that space for creative freedom. I’ve always loved the idea of creating a nourishing home-cooked meal service based on wholefoods. I’d also love to write a cookbook and if I could dream big and be anything I wanted to, I’d perform in musicals for a living. I think I surely did that in a former life!
Q: As someone who is quite open about their struggles with mental health, what words can you offer to those who may be in the same boat?
Caitlin: Talk, talk, talk. Talk to your friends and family, talk to a professional, and talk to others who also live with mental illness. Once I began being open, honest and vulnerable I realised that the stigma wasn’t really there like I thought it might be, not in my experience anyway. Once I dipped my toes in, I realised it was safe to do so and now I probably err to the side of oversharing! There are so many great resources these days if you don't feel comfortable sharing with friends and fam like Beyond blue, Lifeline and Black Dog Institute. Mental illness can feel all-encompassing, hopeless and isolating but it doesn’t have to be that way.
Find a way to work with your strengths and find your superpower. We all have one if we look hard enough. What gifts does your mental illness give you? Honour and nurture your more vulnerable side and ask for support when you need it. I always have struggled with that one, but I found that people really want to help & feel useful. Even if it just starts with, “Hey, I’m really struggling with XX and I need help working out where to start”. It opens up the conversation and then you have someone to help carry the load and help you move forward.
“Mental illness can feel all-encompassing, hopeless and isolating but it doesn’t have to be that way.”
Q: Is there anything exciting in the future regarding products, launches or collabs?
Caitlin: Yes!! I’m so excited to introduce a new blend to our family of chai’s. I actually created this product over a year ago now and it’s become my go-to every morning. We’ve had lots of great feedback from our test market and I can’t wait to get it into cafes and peoples homes. As for a product collab, I can't say too much… Something chocolatey with an awesome like-minded brand ;)
Q: Any “business crushes” that you would love to work with?
Caitlin: Ha good question! Some businesses that inspire me - Bed Threads, Loving Earth, Mork Chocolate, Pana Organic, Loco Love (are you detecting a theme?!), Minor Figures, Mamamia Podcast, Zoe Foster Blake (and one of the businesses she founded, Go-To), Merry People, Nourished Life… The list goes on! I’d feel honored to work alongside any of these brands!
Q: Where do you see Calmer in the next 21+ years? What dreams do you have for the biz?
Caitlin: Whatever direction we go in, I can’t really see myself selling the business. It would feel a bit like giving my child up for adoption! Maybe one day my daughter will feel inspired to take the reins; that would be really nice, though of course it might not be her path.
I’d love to continue to build on the community we have and create a workplace that opens up a bit more to the public. Creating a space where people can come and escape their lives for a while with yoga, massage, chai & community. This would be a really interesting path to take. It's hard to say as I have ideas popping in and out all the time, so we'll just have to wait and see which ones take.
“I’d love to continue to build on the community we have and create a workplace that opens up a bit more to the public. Creating a space where people can come and escape their lives for a while…”
Q: Lastly, if you could have one cup of chai with anyone in the world (dead or alive), who would it be and what would you talk about?
Caitlin: I believe I was born a few decades too late. Honestly, I’d love a chai (or whiskey!) with Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix and Robert Plant and listen to stories about what it was like to live in that time (in the late 60’s/early 70’s) where the rock was psychedelic and the love was free-flowing … and have them serenade me with their divine vocals!