Business over a cup of Chai: The Tea Tale of an Entrepreneur - British Herald
August 4, 2020

Business over a cup of Chai: The Tea Tale of an Entrepreneur

Dubai: Café culture has become an even more integral part of city life. Calm and welcoming venues have always become space for fair social exchange. While the world has evolved, the pace of growth has quickened, and technology has embedded itself in everyday life, people still flock to cafés to meet and discuss knowledge and ideas. Like Cafes, the Tea culture has become a way of being very much. Relaxation, Spirituality, Tradition and pleasure; tea isn’t just a drink. The ancient art of authentic tea-making, the sensational aromas produced, and the refreshment provided revitalises both body and mind. Recreating the traditional blend of Tea is Rafih Filli, a successful Teapreneur and a pioneer in the Tea business, who changed the archetype of Tea culture across the globe.

The Brand Quotient
The brand name matters as much as the quality of the thing. Rafih and friends had a nickname FiLLi, with all their initials, back at school days. And thus, FiLLi became a brand entity. FiLLi always delights everyone who walks in at its signature “Tea n’ Talk” outlets. ‘FiLLihood’ welcomes one with the ambient and cosy hangouts which houses endless conversations. Its warm, earthy tones characterise FiLLi stores with hues of orange, brown and caramel thrown in between to give it that classic tea tone. Gently graced with mahogany interiors accentuates a cosy and luxurious vibe to the entire space. The stores are strategically placed at locations, which guarantee maximum visibility and ambience.

The Success Story of a ‘Chaiwalla’
Determined to be a cabin crew, but destined to be a Teapreneur. Rafih Filli’s tale of triumph began with a simple cup of energising tea. Cooking up a delectably divine concoction that was potently flavoursome and overwhelmingly aromatic, Rafih FiLLi offered the simplest of beverages which had the lure to entice people from all over the emirate. “My father had a cafeteria, which started back in 1991 in Mamzar area. My first job after coming to Dubai was in the merchandising sector.

Along with that, I used to help my father’s business by going to the market and purchasing foodstuff for the cafeteria. It gave me an idea of starting something unique, and I discussed taking over the shop with my father who had many questions mainly because it was something very ambitious for a 21-year-old, but I convinced him and started my venture in 2004, as soon as he handed over the keys. I started with selling tea and put the nickname ‘FiLLi’ on the signboard. And the rest, as they say, is history,” says the founder of FiLLi Café. Rafih introduced a cup of milky tea dusted with saffron, aimed mainly at sweetening the taste buds of its Asian clientele and named it ‘FiLLi Tea’. Little did he think that a cup of tea could lead to a flourishing chain of cafes across the Gulf with customers flocking to taste his concoction.

The journey to brewing the crowd puller was an arduous task. “I just (experimented with) a tea bag and gave it to the regulars and they liked it.” After seeing the beverage gain popularity among his usual customers, FiLLi stepped up its promotion among his clientele, surviving purely on word of mouth.
FiLLi’s concept of refining and repackaging the traditional tea worked. He unearthed a horde of tea lovers in the land of coffee drinkers, which helped him to expand his café chains. Sales at most of its outlets bustled as ever before with FiLLi Zafran, the brand’s signature tea, being the star.

The Signature Blend
Rafih FiLLi unlocked the perfect aroma, which won him hearts when he created the proprietary FiLLi blend back in 2004. ‘Zafran’ is the signature tea blend of FiLLi, which has made it a brand today. Saffron and cardamom are the keynotes, while all the magic is hidden in the right approach to brewing the Zafran tea.

As elegant as it sounds, Zafran is the result of the perfect alchemy of generations of perfecting the art of tea blending. FiLLi has a product that is truly unique and fresh. His precise formula is still followed to the dot, which makes the Zafran a consistent product. Apart from its captivating aroma and flavour, the dash of saffron adds that extra goodness to regulate blood pressure, which creates the additional soothing effect while enjoying the beverage.

‘Tea and Talk’– where conversations brew
In the beverage industry tea business has not been given as much importance as the coffee. Cafes only meant for coffee, and the concept of conversing over a cup of tea didn’t exist in the UAE culture. It was the biggest challenge in the journey of FiLLi. The homely ambience at FiLLi and the signature FiLLi Zafran Tea was appreciated by people as they could chat for hours while immersing themselves in the joy of a warm, soothing cup of tea. Thus, this way the journey of FiLLi began, where visitors could ‘Tea n Talk’ and gradually made FiLLi their second home.

Infusing the secret blends of success
Rafih tried infusing various aromas in his Café. He introduced a range of sandwiches and tea blends and shifted his focus to Zafran Tea. He says, “The signature FiLLi Zafran Tea was a result of his determination to introduce a speciality tea that people would love. He recalls experimenting with saffron in the Karak chai and thinking it might become a hit. “People would come to buy the Karak chai, but I started giving them my favourite ‘Zafran’ tea as a sampler,” he says. “Gradually, Karak fans started asking for the Zafran tea which we used to sell at Dh2. They didn’t mind paying an extra Dh1.50 for a better experience,” Once he saw a boom in his market, this entrepreneur from Kerala decided to copyright the name – “FiLLi” tea, and serve it through a full-fledged franchise.

Today, nearly 30,000 cups of FiLLi tea are sold every day in the UAE, claims Rafih, who has had the privilege to serve tea to the ruling family. Complementing the range and completing the high-quality selection of products on offer, is FiLLi’s unique blend of quality Tea. FiLLi products have no artificial colours, preservatives or MSG. It is naturally fresh and delicious food. Rafih believes that the menu and the team’s absolute commitment to serving the highest quality of items in all FiLLi stores have led to its success. The cafe works closely with all the suppliers to ensure consistent quality, taste and most importantly, the freshness of all products.

On the Menu
FiLLi stores today are decked in orange and brown with Mr Filli’s face emblazoned on the cups and the signage. Cookie jars filled to the brim sit next to the till while his packaged tea powder—all with FiLLi branding on it- line the shelves. Apart from the ‘Zafran Tea’, this ‘Teapreneur’ has diversified from its tea menu, offering unique items like the chips Oman paratha—a roll with Oman chips, and the usual quibbles of grilled sandwiches and samosas. They have also introduced loose tea and twenty-one flavours of milkshakes on their breakfast menu.

Binding cultures over a cup of tea
FiLLi believes that a cup of tea can unite people regardless of where they are from. Its vision is to be the most admired tea brand in the world. This brand aims at providing an unparalleled experience that delights its customers and entices them to bond over the aroma unchained by its flavorful tea. The vision is to be the largest and most admired tea brand in the world.

FiLLi dreams to be a second home to all tea lovers around the world. Space has now become a favourite place to unite people through tea and conversation. It believes that a customer deserves a relaxing environment where they can revitalise moments and endless discussions over a cup of Tea.

The perfect blend for Success
As there are three separate components to the perfect cup of tea- colour, the mouthfeel and the flavour, likewise Rafih Filli unleashes the ideal concoction of FiLLi Café, which makes it a successful one.

Venue- Another ingredient for success is FiLLi Café’s strategic venue. Near the beach, people came to relax and, of course, have a cup of tea to revitalise. “FiLLi is what it is because of the tea. The Café has made it big by changing the way tea is served across the UAE and beyond. People throng the area day and night just for a sip of the simmering tea.

Branding- As a marketing strategy, Rafih believes in brand positioning, menu re-engineering and employee training. They have set up a very active social media pages as part of digital marketing.

Rafih recalls the time he received a call from the Ministry of Economy regarding the prices of his tea after customers complained about a discrepancy. “Cafes were selling tea for 50 fils then, but I was selling the Filli tea for AED 2,” he explains. “I got the call from the ministry saying that they were going to penalise me since I was selling the tea for a higher price. I tried telling them that it was not the usual tea and even gave them samples but of no avail.” They (the ministry) told me that I could sell a tea for even AED 10 but I needed to create a brand for it”.

Franchising- To make ‘FiLLi’ globally acclaimed, Rafih and his team focussed into sourcing suitable franchising opportunities. He recollects of it being a hard task, meeting with potential investors on a regular basis and convincing them of the profitability our cafés bring on board. These meetings helped them fine-tune and built the brand from strength to strength.

FiLLi café has franchises all around the world. In India, they have plans to open 300 outlets in 10 years. By 2020, they are aiming to set-up 100 principle stores in the UAE.

Going Global
The F&B entrepreneur, whose current turnover is about AED 50-60 million annually, has a very ambitious plan in place for his brand. “We are aiming to have a turnover of about AED250-AED300 million over the next four years (by 2020).” To reach this target, FiLLi is planning to invest about AED80 to AED100 million over this period.

FiLLi Café’s expansion has been paid for mainly from the equity earned from its current stores. The café brand is registered in across 44 countries. “We aim to create a global brand. Even though it is challenging to bring tea into some countries we are aiming to make it big” says the entrepreneur building a business chain based on an aromatic cup of tea.

Rafih’s Cup of Tea
FiLLi Cafe changed the culture of tea. The smell of good tea infused with a hint of saffron cast a mesmerising effect on a Tea connoisseur. Rafih believes that the success of an F&B venture depends critically on both the location and nature of its outlets. “It is critical to be present at prominent locations to generate visibility and reach a wide consumer base”.

He considers Richard Branson as a perfect professional role model. His workday starts with a visit to the FiLLi Café head office. He says, “It’s critical for me to have my finger on the pulse of my brand’s everyday operations”. He spends the first half of the day meeting the top level management team to get a good understanding of day-to-day dealings and market standing. These visits help him to develop effective and efficient plans for the future. Besides, he also loves engaging and collaborating with new people on a regular basis. Being a perfectionist himself, he visits as many Filli Café outlets in a day to understand the clientele.

On the Cards
Rafih’s greatest dream is to be recognised globally and to make Filli Café the go-to tea joint across borders. According to this Teapreneuer, Success cannot be had without struggle and perseverance. Consistency, hard work, and ethics are three important characteristics any aspiring entrepreneur should inculcate in themselves.

FiLLi is in a league of its own with none to compete and the only way for Rafih – the proud owner of FiLLi Café – is to move up and forward. The founder has had numerous inquiries from all over the world, including the US, UK and India. Rafih FiLLi plans to expand his business where he visions to provide the younger generation with an opportunity to fulfil their dreams.

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