London [United Kingdom], June 27: Asian couple Imran Gulzar and Iqra Zahoor have not only popularised Matka Chai in Britain but their main joint in London near the Wembley stadium has become a place where match-making is made, families and friends reunite and discussions around life take place.
At Cha Sha outlets across London, Imran Gulzar and Iqra Zahoor don’t just sell Matka Chai (strong tea) but they also reunite South Asian communities over their shared love of Matka Chai and by doing regular events such as Chand Raat gatherings, Pakistani and Indian independence day celebrations, live singing, ghazal live singing, new year’s eve countdown and many more similar events which give families the chance to enjoy themselves over a cup of Chai.
Imran Gulzar and Iqra Zahoor got married in London in 2017 and decided to start a unique kind of business for the people living in the UK. They decided to sell Chai, as there were hardly any places selling it in London’s several Asian areas. With lots of nerves, they opened their first branch with the name of “Cha Sha” – a reference to how millions of South Asians on a daily basis ask each other about Chai, whether one wants to have a cup of Cha, sit together and have a little chat. The joint is situated only a few minutes’ walk from the Wembley Stadium, home to football matches as well as large scale concerts. No better way to engage over a cup of tea.
Before the couple decided to start their café brand and turn it into a popular household name situated on a short walk from the Wembley Stadium, Asian Cha or Karak Cha was sold in a bland way by another franchise too but without the traditional Dhabba touch.
The couple started their Cha Sha cafes with traditional Indian and Pakistani truck arts design and décor of the cafes capturing the true spirit of Chai dhabbas in Pakistan and India: colourful truck designs, matka, antique utensils, mouth-watering desserts and snacks of rural and urban Asian culture. The seating arrangements and furniture inside and outside the venues for the Cha lovers to sit and enjoy their Cha while listening to Coke Studio songs to remind them of their culture back home.
Imran Gulzar is the mastermind behind this brand. Imran gained recognition in the artist management field while working for renowned South Asian TV channels. His wife and business partner Iqra is a Criminologist by profession and holds the distinction of being amongst the first Asian women to complete a master’s degree in international defence and security from the UK Ministry of Defence.
Within days of opening their first branch of Cha Sha, the concept became an instant hit on social media and South Asian Londoners from across the city started flocking to the venue to taste the Chai to refresh memories from back home. The legend grew and within weeks, there were queues outside the shop and demand for the Matka Chai (strong tea) increased. Chai is usually cooked with water, milk and sugar but Imran and Iqra added their own special ingredient to the tea and introduced Matka chai and the Cha Sha blend which is very popular amongst the younger generation.
South Asians have been drinking Chai for over 5000 years but it is prepared in different ways in different regions and households but the basic concept remains the same.
However, Imran and Iqra used a unique way of serving Chai in Matkas like they do in Pakistan and India to give it the authentic taste and feel of the real desi chai taste.
Imran Gulzar explained: “We made the decision to open our inaugural branch in Wembley, a locality known for its significant South Asian population. Surprisingly, our customer base began to grow rapidly, largely due to the power of social media and the support of those who recommended us within their networks. Our clientele expanded beyond London with customers coming from various cities—a truly joyous milestone for us. Chai is mainly a popular beverage in India and Pakistan and is drunk as a favourite pastime as well as a necessity in every south Asian gathering.”
Imran Gulzar said that currently the couple are running four Cha Sha branches; around 10 more are near completion in various parts of the country. He said: “Every branch has around 8-10 team members. We’re very excited to expand our team with the opening of our new branches by the end of this year. We work as a family as Cha Sha signifies unity and care.”
Imran Gulzar says it was the unique concept of making and branding Cha that hit off well. He shared: “Our model had a unique concept of serving tea in Matkas here in the UK as that was seen previously in rural areas of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Not only could our customers drink from it but they can only take those Matkas home as a souvenir to remind them of their visit to Cha Sha. This was our way of giving back to society and reducing carbon emissions by not using any plastic in our cafes. The leftover Matkas are buried in soil and after 30 days they turn back into soil.”
“Most of the people who visit to drink Cha are south Asian but people of all ethnicities enjoy the taste of our tea and snacks as we offer a wide variety of beverages and all the popular street food found in India and Pakistan,” said the entrepreneur.
Asked how he wants to keep his unique element; Imran Gulzar said the couple have worked hard to keep their brand very welcoming and customer friendly. He said: “We like to listen to what people want and introduce new drinks and snacks according to their liking. In western countries there is a huge Pub concept where families would go and spend hours socialising and enjoying their food and drinks however, the Asian community always struggled to find such spots. So we have tried introducing a halal Pub where people can come with their children, elders and relatives and socialise over tea and snacks. We have also tried helping those in need. It is our policy to give tea for free to anyone in need. If any customer walks into any of our cafés and does not have the means to pay for chai, we offer them the tea with no questions asked.”
Iqra Zahoor shared that there are groups of women who visit the place in the evening to hold talks and have fun. She said she was enlightened to find when couples turned up to meet her, revealing that they had met for the first time at the Cha Sha, exchanged numbers and got married. “There are groups of South Asian women who meet here, discuss their issues, their families and have developed strong support networks. Some of them do committees where they put money in a kitty and help each other save. There are regular poetry and book exchange sessions.” She said she could count over a dozen couples so far who became life partners through their shared love of Cha at their venue.
A significant number of visitors/customers to the Cha Sha are students from South Asian countries who enjoy Cha in groups and relive the memories of back home. For them it’s a way of socialisation and networking and also a memory down the lane of having Chai and the essential gup shup.
Imran and Iqra plan to take their unique brand to every city in the UK and are already in discussions with businessmen in several European countries with significant Indian and Pakistani diaspora who believe in having Cha in their lives.
Their philosophy is simple: “English go to pubs to unwind and relax, have a pint of beer, wine or whisky. Our people don’t go to pubs and the right place for them to relax, unwind and gossip is a Chai Dhabba. Both serve the same objective.”
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