NEW DELHI — A first-time visitor to New Delhi might think Indians are addicted to coffee. There are at least 10 coffee shops in Connaught Place, the city's financial and commercial hub, most within sight of each other and doing well.
But if somebody wanted to enjoy a cup of tea at a similar sort of cafe, they'd be out of luck, even in the world's second-largest tea producer — and a country where people drink nearly eight times more tea than coffee each year.
India as chai and served in a glass, has come into especially sharp focus now that coffee giant Starbucks is poised to enter India.
"You can find nice coffee anywhere, but finding a perfect cup of chai outside is really tough," said Smiti Singh, a Bangalore-based software engineer.
Vriti Malik, a marketing professional in New Delhi, spends 1,400 rupees ($29) on coffee a week and wouldn't mind spending the same on tea, but the flavor just doesn't measure up.
"If it is good chai, I would not mind spending money," she said. "I would like to see a lot of different flavors of tea, and healthy stuff like green tea."
Much of the problem is image.
There are numerous tea vendors who set up shop under a tree or on the streets in India, but the quality of chai they offer for 5 rupees (10 cents) is often suspect. India's growing urban middle class would rather pay a few extra rupees for the clean, posh settings offered by coffee shops.
In addition, selling tea traditionally has been considered a down-market job. Coffee shops, on the other hand, have always been associated with a Western, fashionable lifestyle.
Young urban Indians have embraced the coffee culture. And in January Starbucks announced plans to enter the competitive market with 50 outlets by year's end. While these cafes, including Starbucks, do offer chai on the menu, none of them caters exclusively to tea lovers.
Now, though, a new wave of tea cafes is opening, focusing on the essence of Indian chai but in a modern setting.
When 36-year-old Harvard graduate Amuleek Singh Bijral decided to quit his job and open tea shops, people were perplexed.
Bijral opened a tea retail chain in Bangalore called Chai Point in 2010. While roadside tea stalls offer just masala chai, tea brewed with spices and herbs, Chai Point also offers a variety including lemon tea and green tea.
"People were grateful that we were giving them a clean glass of chai in an affordable and very hygienic setting," Bijral said.
Tapri, a shop in the western city of Jaipur, sells 40 kinds of tea.
Tapri owner Ankit Bohra, who said his idea already has been copied by other startups in Jaipur, plans to open another Tapri outlet soon.
Both Chai Point and Tapri have tried to steer away from setting up as upscale cafes. A glass of tea costs less than one-fifth the cost of a cappuccino at coffee shops.
While there are a handful of upscale tea restaurants such as Infinitea in Bangalore, which says it tries to lure patrons with a "refined palate," they haven't sprung up across the country.
"In India, the perception is that you need not pay that high for chai," said Bijral, who added that he was sure his no-frills cafe would be a hit.