[PHOTOS] This KL Graduate's 'Chai Cycle' Is An Ode To Street Food Sellers In India

The 23-year-old, who has dreamt of being an entrepreneur since he was a child, told SAYS he wanted to try something new in KL and that selling chai on a bicycle felt like a fun thing to try.

Cover image via Sadho/SAYS

In India, the bicycle is more than just a medium of sustainable transportation. Often times, it enables a person to start their business.

If you've been to India, you would have noticed a variety of street foods and drinks sold on the bicycle.

The scene is more vibrant in Bombay, where street food sellers customise their bicycles to sell anything from idly sambhar to cookies and chai. Because the city doesn't sleep, they can be spotted even at night.

Seen here, a guy selling idly sambhar on his bicycle in the streets of Mumbai.

Image via Mumbai Pushpa/Blogspot

For many there, using the bicycle to start a street food business is less about being 'urban' or 'hip' and more to do with convenience

It's like a no-frills version of meals on wheels without having to worry about huge financial investments. It can also circumvent local laws concerning the operating licences required for running a food stall.

For others, it's the only way they can make a living, considering the lack of government support when it comes to small businesses and the huge costs involved in setting up a brick and mortar shop.

So when, last month, photos of a newly-graduated student in Kuala Lumpur selling masala chai on a bicycle in Brickfields went viral, I was intrigued as to what made him try something like that here in Malaysia

His name is Kavievanan Subramaniam. But people simply call him Kavie or Thambi.

The 23-year-old, who graduated from Universiti Tenaga Nasional (UNITEN) with a mechanical engineering degree, told me that he's been selling masala chai around Brickfields since May this year.

I met him around 3pm on Monday, 30 November, at 150, Jalan Tun Sambanthan, Brickfields, from where he starts his day and then proceeds to move around the area for the next two hours.

Since starting his 'chai cycle' in May amidst the pandemic, Kavie has convinced his best friend, Arvind Ratna Kumar, to join him in expanding the business by covering the Masjid India area.

It makes sense, seeing how popular his masala chai has become in the last seven months. When he started, Kavie was only selling 30 cups a day. He now sells over 300 cups. He has also started selling coffee. During our almost hour-length talk on Monday, he was constantly catering to his customers.

Image via Sadho/SAYS

What prompted him to sell chai on a bicycle?

Kavie, who has dreamt of being an entrepreneur since he was a child, told me he wanted to try something new and seeing how KL has never seen anything like this, it felt like a fun thing to try.

"I actually got the idea from India," he told me while pouring tea from one of the two canisters placed on the back of his customised brand new bicycle in black, for customers who were waiting.

"In India, I saw that everywhere they cycle around and sell the tea, right?" Kavie continued, adding, "So I wanted to try the same here and so far, the feedback has been really good."

According to him, the response has actually been so good that he is considering taking this to the next level and starting a franchise of sorts, by adding 20 more bicycles to cover more areas around the city.

"But that is something that's in the long-term," he clarified.

Why chai?

Just for fun.

According to Kavie, selling chai was not something he had planned.

He, however, has always wanted to do something of his own, instead of taking a salaried job. It's something Kavie said he learned from his father, who himself is a businessman in Masjid India.

"Selling chai was something that I started just for fun and now here we are," he told me while smiling from behind his mask.

Initially, Kavie did not inform his parents about his chai business because he was scared of what would their reaction be as "they expect more from me, they thought I will do some engineering work".

Image via Sadho/SAYS

In the last seven months, many in the area have become the regular customers of his RM1 masala chai. They help him promote his business among their circles.

Their patronage has given Kavie the boost to even take bulk orders for events and weddings.

One of his regular customers, who was present during the SAYS interview of Kavie, told me that she cannot have enough of his chai and continuously asks her friends to help support his business.

Another customer, who had ordered two cups of chai just for himself, stood there to finish the chai.

He told me that what he liked the most about Kavie's chai was how perfect the taste is.

"When I have chai at other places, it doesn't taste as good. And being a patient with diabetes, the way Kavie makes his chai — light with less sugar with just the slight hint of ginger — it's what I like," he added.

Present with Kavie there was one of his UNITEN friends, Rishi, who had driven from Pahang for work. In the span of an hour, he had ordered several cups of masala chai.

Rishi spoke very fondly about Kavie and how he had always had this entrepreneurial flair even while he was in university, where he was already running a canteen of sorts for other students on campus.

"We were staying in the same hostel. And Kavie realised that there wasn't any place for students to get food, so he went ahead and opened up a stall where he started selling waffles first and then slowly he started selling other snacks that we would crave," Rishi recounted, adding, "At that time, Kavie was in his final year and his schedule was packed, yet he would work hard to run the stall."

According to Rishi, Kavie would finish his class and then would rush out to the mini-markets or sundry shops to get supplies for his stall. He would then run the stall till late into the night.

Kavie with his UNITEN friend Rishi.

Image via Sadho/SAYS

Kavie told me that so far he has not applied for any permit to run his chai cycle and has not faced any trouble from cops or local authorities

According to him, it may be due to the fact that he is not static in one place and moves around.

When asked if he fears any trouble ahead, Kavie said he is not sure but if he manages to set up a brick and mortar shop or a stall in Brickfields or Masjid India, it's something that will make him feel safer.

However, he will continue with his chai cycle idea regardless.

It's something, he said, "Many of my friends have encouraged me to continue."

"There are some who look down on me, but I don't let that affect me. Because I love what I'm doing."

Image via Sadho/SAYS

Kavie has picked up the Thambi name given to him by his customers to create his own brand.

He now sells his chai on the bicycle under a beautifully done logo, Tea Thambi.

Many other Malaysians have taken up unusual jobs:

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