Kent entrepreneur Amanda Hamilton (41) spotted a gap in the hot drinks market for instant chai latte whilst touring India 11 years ago.
Today, she is the mastermind behind one of the UK’s leading hot drinks brands supplying thousands of stores and coffee shops across the UK and overseas.
“I used to find finance to fund BBC dramas but I always felt like a round peg in a square hole,” said Amanda.
“As an avid tea drinker I noticed the dramatic change in the coffee market with sophisticated coffee bars popping up almost weekly, offering a range of world coffees that had not been available in the UK. But there was nothing of the kind for tea.
“With this in mind, I jumped ship and left my job at the BBC. I went to the bank and asked for a loan to help me open a tea shop but they laughed me out of the door with me having zero experience in business.
“After this I took the concept and thought I’d scale it down into a smaller version and I launched my first mobile tea bar. I raised a small amount of money from Prince’s Youth Trust and managed to secure a plot at Lewisham Station.”
Amanda went on to operate five tea bars at railway stations across the capital selling a range of exotic teas sourced from across the globe.
It was a trip to India however which led to her discovering chai latte. There had been nothing like this in the UK and Amanda began importing small amounts to sell at her mobile tea-bars which, by chance, closely resembled the traditional tuk tuk vans of the Indian chai wallahs.
She added: “On a trip to India I stumbled across local chai wallahs which sell chai in little clay cups for around four rupees, which is pennies here in the UK. I hadn’t tried anything like that before – it was a blend of all the different spices mixed with the black tea and sugar and milk and I fell in love with it – it was love at first sip!”
Unable to find a supplier in the UK, she put on her entrepreneurial hat and, with help from a food technologist, created her own instant version from her kitchen after many hours of trials and tastings. The positive response to her chai latte drink, from her customers, gave her the confidence to find a way to make it in larger quantities to sell.
“I came back to London and noticed that nowhere in the UK actually sold chai latte,” said Amanda. “I did some research into the American market however and noticed there were a few major suppliers who were making a success of it. This inspired me to give it a go here in the UK.
“The beauty of the tea bars is they were a really good market testing tool. I could go away with my blend and get the customers to tell me what they thought – then I could tweak it to their taste. It was a really pivotal part of my journey.
“After a while a couple of coffee shops also approached me to become their supplier and I became a mini wholesaler. Because it was unique and you couldn’t get this product anywhere else – I realised I had stumbled across something which could really work.”
Having had no previous manufacturing experience or knowledge, she found industry help to turn her own recipe into one that could be made on a much larger scale.
By 2004, the brand Drink Me Chai was created with two initial flavours of Spiced and Vanilla Chai supplying a number of local coffee shops.
It was a friend however who suggested she approach a supermarket chain, and in her naivety, she brushed aside all protocol on how to approach a supermarket and contacted Tesco head office directly.
Incredibly, a meeting was agreed and she presented a sample with no brand identity or packaging, something she wouldn’t dream of doing now, but it worked.
“As a small business, a big, big, turning point was the fact that the volumes I was having manufactured were quite small for the factories so they were getting a little fed up,” said Amanda.
“This led to me sending a sample into Tesco with no branding or packaging, literally just the powder in a bag, then I got an e-mail from the buyer, which looking back now is quite unorthodox, but I think my naivety helped me.
“They gave me a chance and gave me a 250 store listing. However, I only had three months to build the brand and get it market ready.”
Despite this, Amanda managed to pull it all together and by the three month deadline had established Drink Me Chai as a brand which was ready to hit the market.
Other leading supermarkets then followed suit and began stocking chai latte and in 2005 the tea-bar business was sold off so Amanda could focus solely on the chai brand.
11 years down the line – she is now supplying thousands of stores and cafes across the UK and Europe and is continuing to fight for her space in the market with impressive results.
Amanda said: “We’re now in all of the major retailers bar Morrisons. We’re not in every store but we’re in a good number of them. We also supply cafe chains such as Cafe Nero and Coffee Republic.
“We have big, big ambitions. We want to be the number one in Europe and beyond. There are a lot more players coming to market and we must stay ahead of the game.
“We also have our new packaging hitting the shelves in October – we’ve gone back to the heart of the brand and are really pushing brand positioning to help cement our position as the market leader.”
As well as securing listings in most of the major supermarkets, independent retailers, caterers and several high street cafes and coffee chains, the company also exports its products to over 20 countries.
“We export to around 20 countries,” she said. “Aside from the home market – our second largest market is Holland. We supply Albert Heijn out there which is like their equivalent to Waitrose or Sainsbury’s, it was a huge deal for us when we landed that deal.
“We now employ nine people and we turned over £3.5m last year. This year we’re hoping to increase that by £1m to £4.5m.
“The majority of this growth we see coming from overseas in Europe and also our new RTD (Ready to Drink) range.”
When asked what advice she would give to an entrepreneur looking to emulate her success, she added: “You have to have a clear defined and tested idea, not just family and friends.
“Then you have to have bags of persistence and drive. You have to think big. If you think about all of the steps along the way you may not go ahead with it but if you look at the bigger picture, you naturally find solutions along the way!”
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