If you’ve ordered a chai in San Francisco, there’s a decent chance it was courtesy of David Rio. And if you haven’t heard the name David Rio, there’s a decent chance you will now that the first retail location has opened its doors on Market Street.
David Rio was started by David Scott Lowe and Rio Muira two decades ago. The duo sold specialty tea and coffee products in Japan, which is when its chai offering really caught on. As Lowe explained, chai was a fledgling product at that point in time -- and one that offered a unique bridge between coffee and tea. Soon, David Rio was selling its chai wholesale to markets beyond Japan, including here in the states.
And while San Francisco hasn’t been a leading market for David Rio (despite the fact that that company is based out of and branded with the city), it’s chai is still sneakily popular. La Boulange, The Griddle, community markets like Andronicos in the Sunset and countless other independent cafes all sell the chai -- and not necessarily with the David Rio branded advertised.
To bridge that gap -- between chai and the community, the David Rio brand and recognition -- Lowe and Muira decided a retail location was key. The focus was on “creating an experience for our customers,” Lowe said. “We needed a place that’s a physical embodiment of our brand.”
This past April, that became reality. And it’s called Chai Bar, located on 6th and Market.
“Just when we had something nice and sustainable,” Lowe joked, referring to the established David Rio wholesale business, “I said … let’s jeopardize that too and try this cafe and restaurant thing!”
“This really is a fledgling startup business in that I’m still trying to figure it out every day,” he added. “We are investing a lot -- but we do have the substance of the David Rio brand behind us.”
That’s not all Chai Bar has behind it, either. Lowe explained that they chose the space without knowing much about its neighbors. During the negotiation process, they learned Zendesk was moving in.
“I didn’t know who Zendesk was,” Lowe admitted. “Shortly before we signed our lease someone in my office said: Look, Zendesk just went public on the New York Stock Exchange. And they showed me a picture of the CEO of this place ringing the bell.”
“It just so happens that he’s the father of a girl who’s in preschool with one of my kids, “ Lowe added, laughing. “I actually knew him. He was just this really humble guy who had only told me: Oh I just do this technology thing.”
Zendesk’s CEO did tell Lowe one other thing once they realized they were neighbors, though: “We’re gonna make you a success!”
Lowe said he comes in to Chai Bar frequently and encourages his staff to do the same. While a lot of tech companies are known for perks like amazing kitchens and catered lunches, Zendesk intentionally offers a little less. They still have snacks and a nice fridge full of booze, Lowe said, but employees are encouraged to be out in the community buying things.
“People, I think, want to support local and family run organizations,” Lowe added.
If Chai Bar can indeed compete with the Starbucks and the other drink shops plopped on every corner, it’s success would serve as some delicious proof.