Dolly’s is Kolkata’s most famous tea shop. Set up in 1987 by Dolly Roy – the first-ever woman tea taster of India – the outlet, with a relaxed, laid-back atmosphere, serves affordable tea that customers swear by. It is a part of Roy’s mission to spread the goodness of India’s wonder beverage.
Dolly’s, The Tea Shop is a venerable Kolkata institution. A small and cozy outlet founded and run by Roy, it is situated in a corner of the Dakshinapan Shopping Centre, a stone’s throw from many colleges. Roy is there at the shop most evenings, advising customers about which tea to drink and working towards her mission to turn tea from a cheap drink to a heavenly concoction that has to be savoured.
The story of Dolly’s begins way back in 1971 when Roy applied for the position of “Tea Ambassador” with the Tea Board of India. The job, which required someone to promote Indian tea overseas, caught her fancy as it meant travelling, meeting people and, most of all, had everything to do with tea. Roy did her schooling from Darjeeling and was thus very familiar with the different types and aromas of tea. After getting the job, she got posted at the tea gardens in Darjeeling for a year for intensive training on different varieties of tea and the manufacturing process. She was effectively groomed by the Tea Board as the face of the Indian tea abroad. A year later, she was posted to Belgium, followed by a stint in New York.
Recalls Roy: “I loved the job as it was very adventurous and a novel occupation. I travelled in a tea pot-shaped van throughout Europe to promote Indian tea. Over there, I met many prospective buyers at commercial events and my job was to convince them to buy our tea.” Besides promoting Indian tea, the job also required her to be a tea taster. This involved a lot of patience, perseverance, and precision. “I have tried almost all the tea varieties in the world and can proudly say that Indian tea is the best. Some of the Chinese teas like ‘white tea’ are also good to taste,” Roy explains. She became a tea auctioneer after leaving the Tea Board and joined a company called Contemporary Target, a broker for many tea producers.
Armed with her experience and knowledge of tea, Dolly was determined to change the tea-drinking landscape of Kolkata and turn the mundane everyday drink into something hot. In 1987, she opened the now-famous tea cafe. “I always wanted to share my passion for tea with everyone, so I took a three-month break from my work and launched the speciality tea boutique together with the help of my staff,” says Roy. She has personally trained the all-female staff of the outlet that has been there since its inception.
Talking about her initial struggling days, she says: “The two main stumbling blocks for me were location and finance. After seeing many places, I zeroed down on the Dakshinapan Shopping Complex. Finance was another issue. I managed to get a loan of Rs 1 lakh from the State Bank of India (SBI). But by the grace of God and due to the novelty of our concept which was accepted by both the masses and classes, I was able to repay the loan in a year’s time.”
Dolly’s, The Tea Shop was launched long before the coffee bar culture brewed in India. Roy’s personal touch and refined hospitality have made it a runaway success. Even today, she personally approves each tea served at the outlet. A firm believer in the goodness of Indian tea, Roy ensures that all tea retailed at her shop is sourced from India. In a way, she is still the unofficial tea ambassador of India, promoting Indian tea through her tea shop.
One of the things much loved about the tea shop is its cosy and informal setup where one can enjoy some of the finest tea in a laid-back, unhurried atmosphere. Says Roy: “During mornings, most visitors to my shop are tea buyers. The afternoons are meant for students. In the evenings, families and groups of friends are our main customers who are also tea buyers.” The tea shop is small – only 250 sq.ft. – which sometimes does create a problem for customers, especially during the weekends when footfalls go up to 150-200 and there is hardly a place to sit.
The humble venture that started 25 years ago has retained its quaint look-and-feel but played around with its menu. It now offers tea floats, iced tea, brownies, grilled sandwiches, sausages, etc. Roy says most of her sales comes from flavoured ice tea so she keeps introducing new flavours. On customer demand, she has also started focussing on snacks. “Grilled ham sandwich is one of our most popular snack items,” she says.
Curiously, Roy is not interested in expanding her tea shop as she does not want to compromise on quality, and also refuses to appoint any franchisees. She has plans to start a tea museum in Kolkata to educate the people about the benefits of Indian tea. For this, Roy wants the Tea Board of India to take the initiative in creating awareness about various teas among the consumers so that the market continues to grow for India’s wonder beverage.