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November 23, 2021

Culture, Coffee, & Grit: An Indian Girl’s Rise to Whole Foods Shelves

Post By:
In-House Contributor
Guest Contributor:
Nandini Jayaprasad

I am a 4th generation coffee planter from the mountain town of Chikmagalur in India (‘Chik by the locals). Raised in a patriarchal society, I vowed that I would work just as hard, if not harder than the boys to prove that women can build and manage companies. My father noticed that I was quick to identify minute details of the coffee plants. He nurtured my desire to learn.

My grandfather was part of the ‘Quit India’ and ‘Non-Violent’ Gandhian movements in the early 1940s (to the British Colonization of India). My father was a member of the Coffee Board of India that was responsible for opening up the coffee market to allow free trade. Needless to say, I knew I had big shoes to fill.

While most girls in my generation were groomed to be housewives, I was busy plotting to break cultural barriers and live my life on my terms. As I grew, India was also on the cusp of change. Arranged marriages were phasing out, single women were allowed to study abroad and women were allowed to go to clubs. I experienced both the conservative and modern India. My journey accelerated in 2004 when I moved to the US to study and work.

What better way to shake cultural barriers than to move from Bangalore to Texas. After my studies, I moved back to India to help my father with the coffee business. As chance would have it, I met my future husband, David, in India. After several years of long-distance dating, we took a leap of faith and married. Life took us down many roads, but eventually we mustered the courage to move to Palm Beach, Florida, to start Chik·Monk. This decision changed our life. 

David and I launched our business in 2019 to vertically integrate our family coffee estates and to communicate the voice of the farmer. Success has not come easy. At the onset, many stores and consumers didn’t know what to think about coffee from India. India is the land of tea, curries, and spices. For me, this was perplexing given that some of the most recognized global brands use Indian coffee in their blends. I knew that I had to take a more focused approach to communicate the history of our story.

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India (Chikmagalur) is in fact the second oldest coffee growing region in the world. From India, coffee spread to Indonesia, the Caribbean and South America. As we embarked on educating consumers on the history of Indian coffee, we also had to confront the topic of “single origin”. Many companies source from brokers where coffee is aggregated at the country level, which we see in the stores as “single origin”. The raw coffee is then roasted from a given country and sold under the roaster’s brand names. Thus, the story of the farmer fades away once the coffee is shipped out.

The roasting and the retail of coffee was a whole new ball game for me and so I began working with an award-winning specialty roaster here in Florida. I learned that you could grow the best quality coffee, but a roasters’ technique brings the beans to life. They worked with us over months to find the right balance and to bring out the deliciousness that our Indian estates have to offer. 

I then had to learn how to be a barista in order to ensure a quality cup of coffee. Everything from water to tamp of the espresso puck affects the final product. After many intense workshops, I was officially put to the test when serving our coffee at the West Palm Beach Green Market. Who would have thought a farmer would be serving up lattes?! Continuous practice sharpened my skills and enhanced our brand in South Florida. 

We  fine-tuned our website, targeted gourmet stores and restaurants in South Florida, and we were selling on Amazon as part of the climate friendly pledge. We went door to door demonstrating our products with the goal of being recognized by a national retailer. 

In December 2020, we established our first pop-up café on Palm Beach Island. It has been a turning point in our journey. Customers and the media noticed. We were featured in magazines, newspapers, on the radio and on television. It may have been a first for Palm Beach Islanders to reach for a newspaper and see an Indian woman wearing a saree on their front page. There I was proudly, talking about our family’s coffee. This past month, our goal has become realized as we launched Chik·Monk coffee in ten Whole Foods stores across Palm Beach and Miami-Dade Counties. We continue to expand our presence in South Florida and beyond. 

Everyone has their why, and mine is to get people to savor high-quality sustainable coffee. It takes one year of constant care to cultivate coffee. I want our customers to take a moment for themselves and to drink their morning brew mindfully. To smell the complex aroma and enjoy the flavors our coffee has to offer. Let yourself be whisked away to an India that is truly stunning, underexplored and quietly removed from the hustle & bustle of the cities.

Our coffee is Rainforest Alliance Certified and we use compostable packaging in an effort to move away from one-time use plastics. We firmly believe that sustainability and quality go hand-in-hand. With each purchase, our customers help to save the rainforests where our coffee grows and to support the local community by giving them better access to living conditions and education.  I am proud of my Indian heritage and it is expressed in all aspects of our company.

Our message and our coffee is gaining traction and putting India on the map for specialty estate coffee. But the important take-away of our story is: dream big, execute daily and never give up. Have a vision board, supportive friends, mentors, and coaches that will help you stay hungry and persistent. There were many times when I almost gave up, especially during the height of Covid-19 when business came to a standstill. But I continued to push forward. I would meet with prospective customers and speak with buyers monthly. I kept reaching out. And today, I am proud to say I am fulfilling my dream with each new milestone.

Find more information about Nandini and Chik Monk