Over a decade ago, Vincent Conti and Mario Minichilli opened a café in St Kilda and began developing a chai blend to be served alongside specialty coffee. As they perfected their recipe, the popularity of their chai blend grew, and fate brought about a friendship with Koray Gencel. Today, this dynamic trio continue to share their passion for a good cup of sticky chai while also continuing to innovate and propel Prana Chai to the next level.
We speak to the team about their inspiration, changing trends and attitudes, the impact of COVID-19 on business, what’s next and much more below!
What inspired you to create Prana Chai and what makes it different?
Vincent: I wanted to create a great tasting and unique chai that other café owners such as myself could offer their customers. We sampled each batch and tweaked the recipe daily, so we had a consistent product.
Mario: We started making Prana Chai in our café for our customers, and after seeing the benefit it added, and hearing all the positive feedback, we saw how it could be a product that other cafés could benefit from. There are other sticky chais out there, but what sets us apart is our flavour and our commitment to service and professionalism, in order to help our cafés succeed.
Koray: We’re different because we prioritise high-quality and great service in a fun environment. We enjoy being here and feel like this shows in our day-to-day life with our suppliers, customers and colleagues.
You’ve been in the chai business for over a decade now, what significant changes or trends have you noticed?
Mario: The most significant change is chai becoming the most popular drink in cafes when a customer is looking for an alternative to coffee. Back in the day, in my opinion, this was shared by hot chocolate and a range of teas. Also the café operator is now understanding that it’s not only coffee that deserves that “specialty” approach but all products on their menu. The quality of café offerings has gone up dramatically over time due to the fierce competition found in the hospitality industry, and the end consumer expects that quality regardless of what they are consuming.
Vincent: Chai is very popular now especially sticky chai, which I am proud to say that we created this space. Cafés need to offer great service and products to compete these days, as the standards are very high.
Koray: The powder and syrup is out of the window for starters. At least if you want to have a good coffee shop that is. Customers want and demand better quality products, a good experience and honesty – Prana Chai provides all of these all at once.
What’s the best advice you’ve been given and who gave it?
Vincent: Never take your eye off the ball and take care of your employees.
Mario: My father. After I traveled the world in my youth for a few years, I came back full of inspiration ready to start my career and shared with him all the business and financial aspirations I was feeling at the time. He told me “That’s great son, but don’t forget what’s really important, look at me, I’m happy in my marriage and I am happy that all my family get along.” At the time I thought he missed the point and it kind of deflated me, I thought he didn’t understand me as a person, but after achieving many of those goals from back then and starting my own family, I realised he was right on point.
Koray: Whatever you do, do it right. I sometimes choose not to do things but if I do it, I try to do it to my best ability – thanks mum.
The pandemic was challenging for many businesses, what was your experience?
Vincent: Very challenging for us as we supply directly to cafés globally who were hit extremely hard. We focused on our online business to get us through.
Mario: We had many challenges from both ends – our sales were affected because of the issues cafés were having due to restrictions, and logistics became a massive challenge because of rising costs and delays. I think the government supported businesses well and the Jobkeeper program helped us to keep our staff on. We had them working “on” the business rather than “in” the business while it was not as busy as usual, so that we are now beginning to come out the other end in a better position.
Koray: Depressing for starters to see the vibrant hospitality market diminishing to takeaways and all that. I am glad we are at the end of it or at least we see some sort of normalisation.
What’s the biggest learning on your business journey so far?
Vincent: Still learning everyday, I don’t think you should ever stop learning.
Mario: After 20 years in business I keep learning the same lesson, over and over and over again. It’s easy to get distracted along the way so…
Focus on making the best product possible, constantly trying to improve it, always believing you can improve it and do the same for service to your customers. The best advertising is word of mouth by a long shot. Product and service will bring growth.
Koray: Invest in people, be resourceful and do your best. I find these to be of a quality that people see and value. It says a lot about any organisation that faces customers and suppliers.
What’s the secret to making the perfect cup of chai?
Vincent: Using plant-based milks is the best way to make a great cup of chai and also making sure you take care while brewing, you don’t want to overheat your brew otherwise it can become bitter.
Mario: My best tip is to taste the chai periodically as you brew it, use a spoon and sip it every now and then – when it tastes just right, stop brewing, strain and enjoy the perfect chai. Avoid overbrewing the chai which can release too many tannins from the tea, which will overpower those warm, cosy spice flavours.
Koray: Long, cold brew is my go to. In the fridge with a 1:10 ratio of chai to milk. Overnight. Strain and serve. Can’t beat it.
What’s next for Prana Chai?
Vincent: Keep producing chai but also introduce new healthy products.
Mario: Move into our new factory and improve our operations, bit by bit.
Koray: Stay on course with our strategy, and do it over and over again in overseas markets.
Do you have a favourite Ulu Hye Mylk Base?
Koray: I liked the original Nut Mylk Base. It was earthy and brought out the lovely notes in Prana Chai.
Get your hands on the limited-edition Prana Chai x Ulu Hye Hot Brew Kit here.