As the long lines gave way to empty tables, one Basel-based woman entrepreneur got to share her story of taking her chain of cafes from India to Switzerland, facing a year that was brutal to her business. She tells us how she managed to hold fort through it all.
Sunita Kour understands what it means to be resilient. Born in Kashmir and raised in Jammu, India, she was brought up to be an independent, strong girl with a focus on academics. She says, “Little do people outside the Valley know about our struggles after leaving our homes in Kashmir and moving to Jammu as refugees.” The lack of opportunities in Jammu led to her moving to Dehradun to complete her undergraduate studies in Electronics and Communications engineering.
Then came a move to Noida ( a planned city in India’s northern state of Uttar Pradesh), which is where she began her corporate career in 2006, working her way up to several roles from IT Specialist to Procurement Manager to Project Manager. “I still found my potential underutilized and that thirst to expand my horizon, to live as myself, do what is right and what is good remained unquenched,” she says. After several happy years in Noida, she moved to Switzerland in 2017.
With her husband’s job being based in Switzerland, the family of three needed to find a way around their long stretches of separation. Sunita and her brother Supinder had by now started a café, ‘Techies Time to Tea’ – and it wasn’t an easy decision to leave her job and her tea business in India behind,” Yet, Sunita packed their bags and joined her husband in Basel.
“I was not sure if we’d be able to sustain our business without me being in India. For me, in Switzerland, being home, taking care of our little one alone was even harder with no prior experience.”
Bringing Tea to Switzerland
The tea industry has always held a special place in Sunita’s life. ‘Techies Time to Tea’ was set up with the intention of providing quality tea to an ever-growing IT industry, and supporting small tea growers and tea workers. Over 5 years, the brother-sister duo expanded the business with the opening of 15 stores in India. They lived and breathed the beverage – learning about the various types of teas, the state of the industry in India as well as the struggles for the tea workers across the country. “There were more than enough reasons for us including investment to take our final call on starting a ‘Tea Cafe’ and not a restaurant.” Sunita has fond memories of the early days of the café.
The beverage has found its way into her heart and has become a way of life. Says Sunita, “Tea is not just a beverage, but pure love of nature bestowed on us humans. It helps us stay warm, pamper ourselves, welcome others and open up to life and nature. If I get a chance and have enough capital, I can spend my entire life educating the world about tea and its offerings.” Eventually, Sunita’s dream of opening a café in Switzerland came to fruition with the opening of her speciality tea room in Basel, in early 2020.
Challenges of setting up a café in Basel
Setting up a cafe in Switzerland wasn’t an easy decision. Starting from company selection/formation, rentals to licensing, number of seats, location, selection of suppliers, negotiations, insurances, tirelessly running from pillar to post, one has to adhere to the strict Swiss compliance policies and regulations.
“It is not easy and once you feel you are through all these processes – which, in reality never gets completed – comes the hard part of marketing. Sunita says that one has to be a shameless marketer of oneself if one cannot afford to spend half of what has been spent for the inception of the business, towards marketing costs.”
Traditional door-to-door marketing was not an option, as nearly every mailbox declares “No Advertisements”. She found help through the online community and with several online magazines that helped spread the word.
Running a Café in the times of Covid-19
The food and beverage industry has been in the eye of a hurricane this past year. At the peak of the pandemic in Switzerland, restaurants and cafes were forced to shut down. In a brief interlude to a dismal year, restaurants were allowed to open for a while, until another wave of the pandemic led to closures yet again. “We are still not through the pandemic, but we are trying to sustain 4 of our cafes in India and Switzerland that are open again after the lockdown. It is tough, really tough and our heart sinks every evening looking at the sales numbers.”
Sunita has good advice for those who are in a similar situation. Having a backup at such times is really crucial for any business. She emphasises the importance of having the right attitude, “We must never give up until there is really no way out. Keeping track of relief or aid departments, or knowing what the government is offering is really important as there is no single platform for such information. Networking with groups/people who are known to support each other and stay updated goes a long way.”
“This is the time when everyone looks for support and extending an extra hand does not hurt. I have opened the doors of my cafe to all entrepreneurs who need an extra shelf to sell their products that can legally be sold and, trust me, it does not hurt. It brings positivity, helps grow the network and may bring extra walk-ins too,” she states.
A message for our readers
Sunita has a simple, yet profound message for our readers:
“You never know what others are going through, so do not judge, and do not envy others. Everyone has their own struggles, and deserves positivity and kind words; or sometimes, just a smile!”
“I choose to carry India with her wherever I go, through Indian tea,” says Sunita. So, if you’d like, do support her business by visiting www.timetotea.ch, and order your first tea.
Sunita extends an offer for our readers – you can mention ‘Namaste Switzerland’ in the comments and you can avail of a special free gift from the store.
Disclaimer: Opinions and methods expressed are solely of the writer. Namaste Switzerland does not undertake any obligation or liability which may arise from the content.