It’s nearly impossible to walk down Park Ave in Rochester without stopping. Maybe it’s the big sign or the bright yellow chairs or maybe it’s the smiling faces, but whatever it is, The Chai Guy café is too inviting to pass up. Opening a Chai bar was never something Pat Tharp saw himself doing.
“I had no idea about Chai,” Tharp said. “I was a guitar teacher, a musician recording CDs and doing some regional touring. My history has always been music. Then somehow, I drifted into commercial property and worked in the city of Rochester for like 20 years doing apartment cleaning, repairs and painting. I just kind of learned the craft of home repair.”
The Chai Guy Cafe – Photo by Sarah Killip
Nearly seven years ago music led Tharp on a trip to India.
“I would go to these meetings to prepare you for going to a different country,” Tharp said. “They went over the do’s and don’ts of what you would do, things to be aware of and just social norms. That kind of was my inspiration to get into Chai.”
Soon after his trip, Tharp started experimenting and making Chai.
“I would literally brew the Chai in my kitchen. I had no commercial space, probably wasn’t legal…but I didn’t know anything, I was like, ‘health department? What the heck is that?’ I burned out two stoves doing it,” Tharp said. “The house would smell amazing; you could smell the tea brewing outside. I was just enjoying learning the craft, no one taught me, I just had some basic ingredients and had an idea and started working on it.”
As a Rochester local, Tharp would regularly visit the Public Market with his wife. After a while he started toying with the idea of selling his own Chai there.
“We would go in the morning and get a breakfast sandwich, I’d have my own Chai with me because I brewed it at home, and I thought, maybe I should try selling Chai here, maybe it’ll be good,” Tharp said. “And for a whole year I was just afraid. Most of us, you know we don’t like failure, we don’t like rejection, but that’s a part of business. You have to take a chance.”
Tharp finally decided to take the plunge when he received a little bit of seed money from a car accident.
“One day I was painting this guy’s house and I had my big old red Chevy Astro van, this big monster van,” Tharp said. “I was painting and my friend came in and said he backed into my van. He literally scraped the whole side of this van, and it’s an old van. He called the insurance company and they said they couldn’t even find parts for it and said they’d have to junk it, and if I wanted it back I’d have to pay them 500 bucks… so I got like $1,000 for this van and I took that thousand dollars and started the Chai guy. I bought a tent. I got my Doing Business As (DBA) [the operating name of a company]. Went down, got my insurance, and that was the seed of it. I started the chai guy from a car accident.”
With an energetic environment, an affordable location and a diverse group of people, the market provided Tharp with the opportunity of a built-in audience.
“I figured if I was going to succeed at this I’d have to be able to succeed there. That was my test kitchen. That was my customer service training. It’s a place where I could build a fan base and build a community, I just had to develop it,” Tharp said. “I didn’t have a business plan, I didn’t have this or that, I just took a shot.”
Pat Tharp at the Rochester Public Market – the early days; Photo provided by Pat Tharp
The Chai side of life slowly became a family ordeal as Tharp would work all day doing repairs and brew Chai at night. Chelsea Keller, Tharp’s daughter and store employee, remembers what it was like growing up with The Chai Guy.
“I used to make it at home for him for all the church meetings and stuff,” Keller said. “He’d be on his way home and call and ask us to put the Chai on. My sister and my uncle helped at the market too, it was tight-knit.”
As time went on and Tharp’s business grew he decided to branch out commercially. He pitched his Chai to every coffee shop he could think of around Rochester, Buffalo, Syracuse and so on.
“Slowly after about four years we finally got some good traction, some brand recognition, people looking for us, people requesting us. We started getting into a number of coffee shops and I got a permanent spot at the market. We have a little spot there that’s indoors which is awesome. In the wintertime it’s nice and toasty inside and the summertime we open up the door and have an open-air area,” Tharp said.
Lexi Wilkas, a frequent customer, recalls the first time she discovered The Chai Guy.
“I was at the public market with my mom, I’m not sure if I asked or if she asked if I wanted Chai, but either way we were pleasantly surprised to see how many flavor options and dairy free options there were,” Wilkas said. “His stand inside was very inviting and every time we went, there was always a line. No matter how long the line was though, whoever served us was energetic, precise and chatted with us. I love how he has a little catch phrase too, have a chai-tastic day!”
Tharp and his wife had always talked about getting a brick and mortar. They found a place on Park Ave that looked to be an excellent spot for their business and signed the lease in January of 2020.
“It was the old Speedy’s dry cleaners,” Tharp said. “It had 1970’s like paneled walls, weird floors and fluorescent lights that were like sucking the life out of your skull. It was gnarly and needed a lot of work, so after we signed the lease we started working gutting the whole place.”
Around March COVID-19 hit and threw a wrench in Tharp’s business. About 90% of his commercial accounts shut down because the cafes closed. At this point Tharp had stopped working on home repairs and was relying fully on his Chai for income.
“We pivoted. We made a quick decision and turned to home deliveries,” Tharp said. “We started telling people that if they wanted a gallon of Chai or half gallon or a kit we’d deliver it to their house. Everyone would prepay orders and we would choose a day and go deliver from like eight in the morning till eight at night. We went to Rochester, Greece, Spencerport, Canandaigua, Scottsville; If anyone wanted anything we would deliver it. It literally saved our business.”
With home deliveries Tharp was able to sustain an income and continue working on the café. The Chai Guy officially opened July 8.
“We’ve been well supported by the community and the business has been well received. We’re a specialty café and if people want real Chai they know this is the place to go,” Tharp said.
Chai has a rich history; it’s not just a drink. There’s an emotional connection to it within Indian culture and Tharp wanted to bring that same kind of experience to his shop.
“It’s like sauce right, if you’re Italian and mom’s making Sunday sauce the smells and rituals of a family coming together are familiar,” Tharp said. “We’re trying to bring that same excellence and customer service with our Chai. We engage with people because we think it’s important that every person who comes in is treated with love and respect – they’re welcomed.”
To Tharp’s success, customers find the shop extremely inviting and friendly.
“The Chai Guy emanates happiness and positivity, creating one of the most pleasant shops on Park Ave,” Wilkas said. “It’s not your typical, way too hip, way too expensive, café. He’s honest and genuine and outwardly passionate.”
The path Tharp took to where he is now wasn’t necessarily smooth, and it wasn’t easy, but he’s happy where he ended up.
“I didn’t love cleaning halls, I didn’t love cleaning roaches out of refrigerators, but I did it with excellence,” Tharp said. “I knew people would move into the apartment and they deserved a clean place, I had a reason to do my job well. And it was my reputation, my name is on my work. I brought my passion to whatever I was doing.”
That passion has been driving Tharp his entire life. His passion for music led him to India. His passion for excellence led him through home repairs. His passion for life led him to The Chai Guy.
The Chai Guy cafe is open seven days a week from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.