Photo courtesy of Hidden Grounds
Low lighting, communal tables, Indian art, and shelves of coffee beans decorate the walls of Hidden Grounds, a South Asian themed coffee shop located in New Brunswick, New Jersey.
Anand Patel and Spoorthi Kumar left their corporate jobs at Johnson and Johnson to establish the store, which opened in July 2013.
“I always had a passion for coffee. I grew up next to a coffee estate. It was basically ingrained in my blood,” said Kumar.
The South Asian aspect of the business came about organically as their parents helped them decorate the shop.
“It describes our nature. A part of me wanted that,” admitted Kumar.
They started incorporating South Asian traits in “subtle” ways, such as through art and pictures.
“The fact that we know so much about our cultures resonated with the business,” Patel added.
After the art came the masala chai, the signature product of Hidden Grounds. Made from scratch, the drink is made from ginger, assam tea, and spices from India.
A Hidden Grounds chai comes straight from the stove and carries a flavorful kick that gives the drinker a taste of the Motherland. Hidden Grounds chai challenges the mainstream perception of chai in America, a perception often based on chai tea lattes from grab and go coffee shops like Starbucks or Dunkin’ Donuts.
When customers order chai at Hidden Grounds, the salespeople transparently explain their product and even give a small sample to combat the “misalignment of expectations” that results from lack of knowledge about authentic Indian tea. Rather than create a watered down beverage, Kumar and Patel do their best to educate customers about chai.
Their business has fostered the philosophy of passing down knowledge.
“You have to start…perception of chai from scratch,” reflected Patel.
Another South Asian menu item is the Bombay sandwich, a sandwich made from mint chutney, grilled vegetables, whole wheat bread, and Indian cheese.
“It reminds me of home,” reminisced Kumar, an Indian native.
Patel and Kumar started a coffee shop in New Brunswick due to their troubles finding a place where young people could sit down, hang out, and chat. The two have done their best to maintain this open culture as business owners.
“We make an active effort to be in front of the customer at all times or whenever possible,” said Patel.
Hidden Grounds is active in the New Brunswick community, catering events and participating in the local Farmer’s Market. It also hosts internal events, including a monthly comedy night. A customer even hosted an event with tea which had a “great turnout.” Another customer worked with Hidden Grounds to host a cold brew cocktail event where patrons could taste test alcoholic caffeinated beverages.
“It’s about building the community however you can. I never feel like we’re a coffee shop. We’re much more than that,” stated Kumar.
New Hidden Grounds projects include bottled iced coffee and efforts to source coffee from India.
Though the business has been a big hit in New Brunswick, Patel and Kumar are very aware of the difficulties that entrepreneurs face.
“Passion itself doesn’t necessarily start businesses,” Patel commented.
Both Patel and Kumar encourage aspiring entrepreneurs to know their product, the market, and the perceptions of people who interact with both.
“When it comes to entrepreneurship, people become really excited about ideas. They don’t follow up. They don’t do the rest. You need to do a lot of research, plan it. You need to figure out how to fill the gap [in the market],” observed Patel.
Patel notes issues for South Asian American entrepreneurs in particular.
“We live in this cocoon where we’re told, ‘You need to go to college and get a 9-5 job.’ As South Asians,[who are often expected to] fit into categories, you need to break out of the cocoon. You need to fulfill your obligations, but you need to find a way to justify your passion…a way to harmonize your obligation with justification of your passion.”
If you want to see how Kumar and Patel harmonized their obligations with their passion, in a culturally authentic atmosphere, visit Hidden Grounds on weekdays from 8:00 a.m. – 11:00 p.m., Saturday from 9:00 a.m. – 8:00 p.m., or Sunday from 9:00 a.m. – 6:00 p.m.
For aspiring entrepreneurs who would like further advice, Patel has welcomed correspondence at email@example.com.