How one Los Angeles entrepreneur helped put chai on the map in America

The Chado Tea Room outpost in Torrance. Photo credit: Chado Tea Room

Bianca Shah is in awe of her father Devan Shah’s sophisticated palate.

“You know how Dr. Pepper has 23 flavors?” Bianca Shah asks. “My dad was the kind of person who could take a sip of Dr. Pepper and right off the bat could name at least 17 of the flavors.” 

With his powerful gustatory intuition, Devan Shah took over Chado Tea Room in Los Angeles in 1993 and became one of most highly regarded tea sommeliers and brokers in America. 

Today, Chado is one of the city’s most beloved and longest-operating tea rooms with four locations across LA. Chado also has a distribution arm called International Tea Importers that imports more than 300 different kinds of tea from all around the world. 

Devan Shah died in 2016 leaving Chado and International Tea Importers to his wife Reena, who was involved in the operations from the start, his children Bianca and Brendan, and the family’s longest-working employee, Tek Mehreteab, who now oversees the day-to-day management at all the locations. The team has taken the business to new heights, building on Devan’s rich legacy. 

A lifelong devotion to tea

Devan and Reena Shah of Chado Tea Room looking into the camera

The late Devan Shah (right) along with his wife Reena Shah. Devan put chai on the map in a big way in America. Photo credit: Chado Tea Room.

Devan was passionate about tea from a young age. As a five-year-old, living in Mumbai, India, Devan sold chai in his neighborhood, an initiative that clued his parents into his nascent entrepreneurial spirit. During his early school years, he was most excited about summers near the tea-growing region of Coonoor, in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. He stayed with his sister and learned about cultivating tea leaves at his brother-in-law’s plantations. 

The summers proved pivotal to establishing his own tea business several years later. Devan and Reena moved to Los Angeles in the 1990s to be closer to her family. In pursuit of a stable job, Devan went door to door to sell the chests of tea he’d brought with him to America. A natural salesman, Devan grew a network of customers, in large part due to the hard-to-find variety of tea blends he sold. No distance was too far; Devan and Reena would drive six hours to San Francisco to deliver a shipment. 

In 1993, Devan approached Chado Tea Room’s original owner Suity Liongosari to purchase its first location across from the Beverly Center in West Hollywood. Tea wasn’t yet as popular in Los Angeles as it is today—then hard-to-find blends are now crowd favorites as new tea rooms have opened all across the city. 

Devan was betting big on tea; it wasn’t long before the rest of the country started taking notice.

Chado becomes a bonafide hit

A selection of afternoon tea sandwiches and pastries on a platter at Los Angeles restaurant Chado Tea Room

Chado Tea Room remains popular nearly 30 years after the Shahs took it over. Photo credit: Chado Tea Room

Though Chado already had a bit of a cult-following thanks to Devan’s robust circle of avid tea consumers, getting a storefront was just the beginning. The family initially fretted over a slow start, but the accolades and big-name partnerships started pouring in soon after as Devan simultaneously grew his import business. 

The year the Shahs took over Chado, Devan secured Oregon Chai’s business, supplying it with his Nilgiri tea. The World Tea Awards, held by the yearly World Tea Conference & Expo for the North American tea market, presented Chado with the Best Cafe title in 2017. The organization further credited Devan with introducing chai to mainstream America and its subsequent popularity in the country. 

Devan wasn’t content with just serving well-known tea blends. He was constantly experimenting, blending his own teas with ingredients such as rose-hip, chamomile, and orange peel. It’s what’s kept Chado relevant nearly 30 years after its opening.

“My dad over the years loved his freedom to create blends and bring in new ingredients,” Bianca Shah says. “He would always want to test them out with customers and a lot of them just stuck.” 

Today, each Chado location serves a unique mix of imported teas from countries including India, Colombia, China, Sri Lanka, Japan, and Taiwan. The Shahs have a deep knowledge of the distinct soils, climates, and technology that yield a tea’s umami or sweetness, and place a strong emphasis on Indian teas, given the country is the largest grower of black teas in the world. 

Looking to the future

Bianca and Brendan are now heavily involved on the importing and exporting side for International Tea Importers. In the last six years, Bianca also began leading marketing initiatives for Chado. Meanwhile, Reena is still involved with the day-to-day operations of the business. “She’s still kicking everyone’s butt,” Bianca says.

In 2021, in remembrance of Devan Shah’s legacy, the annual World Tea Conference & Expo announced a new entrepreneurial-focused competition for the tea industry. Named the Devan Shah Tea Tycoons program, it gives emerging small businesses a more accessible way to break into the tea market. Honorees receive recognition and benefits through the World Tea Conference and Expo to support further growth of their businesses. 

Devan’s impact on tea culture in Los Angeles is indelible. “My dad knew the beauty of tea, and he just really wanted to share that,” Bianca Shah says. 

Lisa Kwon is a reporter and writer focused on arts and food culture in Los Angeles, CA. Find Lisa on Instagram and Twitter.