With the Chai Box, Monica Sunny carries on important traditions

Sunny has become a major figure in the world of tea

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With the Chai Box, Monica Sunny carries on important traditions

Photograph by Ben Rollins

Surrounded by rows of coconut palms and quiet lagoons, I lounged at a quaint wellness resort in the backwaters of Kerala. In the late afternoon sun, a petite elderly lady dressed in a dark blue sari rowed her long, narrow boat right up to the hotel’s edge. She took out a dozen tiny tea glasses and poured her homemade, steaming-hot chai for the guests. This was her lifelong ritual, and her small business was confined to the inland waters of southern India.

For another Indian woman, Atlanta’s Monica Sunny, the quest for a good cup of chai spans continents. Dressed in jeans, a sweatshirt, and sneakers, Sunny starts her morning with a chai meditation story on Instagram. She runs a booth at the AmericasMart trade show by day, and fulfills orders at her Marietta factory and store by night.

The founder of the Chai Box has become a major figure in the world of tea. She’s recently served tea at Atlanta’s inaugural Michelin red-carpet event at the Rialto Center for the Arts, at Disney’s first Diwali celebration in Orlando, and at a private party at the home of Vice President Kamala Harris in Washington, D.C. Reese Witherspoon and Oprah Winfrey have included the Chai Box on their lists of favorites.

Chai, which means “tea” in Hindi, is synonymous with life for most South Asians, but especially women. It is the first drink you reach for when you wake up, and what you sip while reading the news. It is an afternoon refresher when you return home from work or meet up with friends. In Bollywood movies, you may have seen young women learning to make tea for the first time to impress a potential suitor, or singing songs inviting their lovers home to meet the family over tea (meaning “Let’s take this relationship further”). Chai is not just a drink; it defines many meaningful moments throughout our lives.

Sunny’s life revolves around the tea. “It was the first thing my mom taught me how to make in India,” she says. “From that moment, I started experimenting on my own and combining different teas and spices to come up with my own custom blends.”

The Punjab native notes that there is no specific recipe for chai; you can blend your own concoction depending on your mood or ailment. “For example, if I have a headache, I add cinnamon, or if I’m feeling full after a big meal, I add fennel and ginger for their digestive properties,” says Sunny. “And any time I feel like I’m about to come down with something, holy basil boosts immunity.”

When Sunny arrived in the land of sweet tea in the ’80s, she remembers there being only one Indian restaurant and grocery store around Atlanta. The only place to drink chai was home. Outside of the Indian community, no one knew about chai. There was no concept of going out for tea.

Today, specialty tea is widely available at groceries and restaurants, and even mainstream coffee shops serve chai, though it’s often overly sweet and lacks the depth of fresh spices.

There is a clear distinction between regular tea and chai, of course. Tea, in its natural form, is essentially tea leaves. Adding spices, milk, and sugar makes it chai. “We should stop saying chai tea—chai is not a flavor, it’s a drink,” Sunny says. “People often think of chai as a spice flavor, but it starts with the tea. I hope that more people become educated about this, and stop serving chai lattes without any tea.”

To carry on the tradition of brewing chai with her three sons, Sunny set up weekly “chai time” on Fridays after school. She would bring out what the boys referred to as “the chai box” of spices and teas, along with a notecard that would teach them how to prepare the perfect cup of chai. She would sometimes invite their friends (and their friends’ parents), to introduce them to the chai time rituals.

As chai and its health benefits gained interest in the U.S., Sunny began to give out samples at Pottery Barn and Williams-Sonoma stores around the city, alongside her career as a corporate consultant.

During the pandemic, her side hustle became her new full-time job. “People were stuck at home and were looking for ways to relax,” says Sunny. She saw an opportunity and founded the Chai Box, running it out of her basement and a shared kitchen space.

To ensure she was serving a high-quality product that was fairly and sustainably sourced, Sunny began to travel to her husband’s home state of Kerala, where she found bright green cardamom pods filled with fragrant black seeds and earthy, dark brown cinnamon barks. After tasting fresh flavors, she sourced them directly from farms and farmers who handpicked teas and spices, and didn’t use pesticides or artificial ingredients.

With the Chai Box, Monica Sunny carries on important traditions
Monica Sunny (right) travels to Kerala to source her tea.

Photograph courtesy of Monica Sunny

Shopping for tea has also evolved, even within Indian households. The traditional way of making chai involves boiling loose-leaf black tea and adding spices. Today, concentrates and tea bags offer convenience and time-saving, but most tea found in individual sachets consists of the lowest-grade leftover tea leaves, which are powdered and tasteless. A few companies, including the Chai Box, sell plastic-free tea bags with compostable and biodegradable ink and paper, which taste fresher and don’t create unnecessary waste.

The Chai Box has outgrown Sunny’s basement and is now housed in a 4,000-square-foot facility in Marietta. The shop is a welcome treat for all the senses. You can smell the aroma of simmering lemongrass, clove, and ginger from the parking lot. Inside, Sunny’s husband, young sons, and expert staff are eager to explain the different blends and offer tastes.

Sunny hopes to open a brick-and-mortar cafe soon. In the meantime, here are some of her favorite spots around Atlanta, where you can taste innovative drinks made with her tea blends.

Strawberry Fields Chai at Sessions Stand
This female-owned tea shop offers original recipes amid French-inspired decor. Marietta

Matcha Lavender Latte at Tuesday Coffee + Shoppe
The family-run English-style coffee shop sources and serves the finest-quality ingredients. Marietta

Green Tea Iced Snow at Alchemist Trading Co.
Try a Korean-inspired tea dessert topped with fruits, shaved ice, and sweet milk. Johns Creek

This article appears in our March 2024 issue.

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