Ace former cricketer, popular commentator and a much-admired administrator, Rameez Raja, like most of us, enjoys nothing more than a cup of tea and good conversation! When we meet him at the plush Dilmah T-Lounge at Ibn Batutta Mall, he is brimming with enthusiasm. Not only because of the cuppa he has just had but because of the passion he brings to an entirely new playing field – business, and that too, the tea business! He can talk endlessly about the beverage – how it is grown, what makes Dilmah (a popular Sri Lankan brand) so special and how he aims to position the lounge as a vibrant hangout destination. Needless to say, selling the idea of tea to an Asian is akin to selling ice-creams to the Eskimo but Dilmah Tea Lounge has a different vibe to it. And you don’t need to be a desi to enjoy it! Exquisite tea tins adorn its walls, interesting tea memorabilia add to the décor and the entire arena has a youthful, pleasant feel to it.
Lending vision and a strong backing to his passion is Ajay Sethi, astute industrialist and avid cricket aficionado, who counts amongst his friends list, some of the biggest and most legendary names in the sport. His association with Rameez dates back to nearly two decades though the latter is only the second cricketer (aside from Kapil Dev) that has he collaborated with. So what exactly gives this brew such a potent kick? Rameez and Ajay share with us their plans, over some fantastic white tea and delicious chicken waffle and burgers….
How long have you known each other?
Rameez: My first social meeting with Ajay was in Kenya way back in 2007 or 2008. I don’t even remember what tour it was! And before that, I think we had met at the Champions Trophy in 2000. So that makes our friendship about 17 years old!
Ajay: We kept meeting at matches and World Cup venues. Over time, we became good friends and enjoyed nothing more than catching up over a good meal.
Rameez: Yes, food played a role in our bonding, Ajay is a great host.
How did the business come into this?
Rameez: I was giving commentary for a match in Sri Lanka once. The night before, in Colombo, I had gone to the Dilmah T-Lounge and fell in love with it. The place was buzzing, the service was efficient and the food, great. It had fabulous energy, normally you would associate such things with coffee! That’s when I felt it would be interesting to start something like this back home.
I discussed the idea with a commentator friend who put me in touch with Dilhan (son of xxx, the brand is named after him and brother Malik). I had always enjoyed Dilmah tea but this lounge was something I was impressed by. One thing led to another and the idea rolled. Later, I met Ajay and we felt could pull something off in Dubai and here we are!
Ajay, how were you convinced?
This was Rameez’s idea, I had no plans to get into F&B. But it had a cricket connection and it intrigued me. The brand is well known, I used to drink it all the time in flights and at airport lounges. It seemed a perfect fit and I was on. There is a Dilmah in Delhi too, started by a chef of Bukhara, Manjeet Singh. So if a chef could start a tea franchise, I felt we were ready too. But it’s entirely Rameez’s idea and we are equal investors in the business. Mostly, when celebrities start something, they just lend their name to it. What I liked about Rameez was that he was willing to invest equally in it. That gave me a lot of confidence to do business with him.
How different is it to do business with a sportsperson?
I wouldn’t do business with any sportsperson or celebrity I have a personal relationship with. For instance, Sunil (Gavaskar) is not a businessperson and I never speak to him about business. But with Kapil (Dev), I have a business equation. When you sit with Kapil, it’s all business; with Sunil, it’s about the small things – movies, food and such. But Rameez is different. He is a friend I am doing business with. There is a lot of trust factor between us plus I admire his entrepreneurship, passion and hunger. I have many friends in cricket and Bollywood but I need to feel comfortable to get into business with them.
Rameez, when did you realise you had an entrepreneurial spirit?
Out of boredom! In our field, the social circle is quite large, we meet a lot of people but we don’t have time to cultivate them since we are so focused on our game. After a while, it gets to you, and you want to diversify. And I always wanted to do something different like this. In my entire career, things have happened by chance. Fortunately, I didn’t have to work very hard to get to where I am. When I played cricket, I was a regular club cricketer doing my MBA studies alongside. When I did my MBA, in my last semester, I got a chance to play my first test match for Pakistan. Thankfully, I didn’t have to sacrifice my studies for cricket. So I got that balance right, it just happened. Similarly, the T-lounge has happened by chance as well. A casual talk with a friend, an informal chat with the brains behind the brand and it all fell into place. But of course, it is a tough job.
Any cricketing lessons that you have brought into business?
You have got to be temperamentally strong. It’s when you’re bleeding that you are tested. When you practice hard in the nets and then go out there to play the match but still edge the ball or get caught behind for nought…..it’s that kind of feeling. This has been difficult and it’s a grounding experience for me. But it’s something that we can control and can live with. It’s just a brand new experience albeit a great one. We are certain we want to start more branches.
What is the most surprising thing you’ve learnt about tea ever since you got into this business?
Ajay: Most Asians can’t begin their day without a cup of tea. Back in the day, at home, there was only one kind of tea - kadak chai with elaichi. Even in coffeehouses, you have cappuccinos and espressos, but you don’t have 50 types of coffee. But here we have 50 types of tea! If I come in here and have five cups of tea, it would take me 10 days to try all the kinds we have. I am also a grape connoisseur and have travelled to vineyards to study it. I feel grape and tea are similar, they are art. Coffee is not an art. Tea-drinking is an experience. There is a story behind each tea bag. Tea is a lifestyle statement.
What is your favourite tea?
Ajay: Recently, I’ve tried ‘White Tea’. Usually I drink two cups of green tea along with five cups of black tea – and I’m addicted to it. But white tea had a different taste and flavour.
Rameez: I love the Seasonal Flush. It’s a wonder how it’s grown. You need the leaves grown in a particular weather that happens once in a decade for around 10 days! It’s so rare and these are just some of the fascinating aspects about it.