Inspiration
At the Chicago tea stall, they’ve found the secret to great chai – happy workers.

At a time when even employees in the Information Technology (IT) sector are holding on dearly to their jobs, and big incentives are a faraway dream, a tea shop in Chennai is setting the benchmark for employee benefits. From gold rings to clothes allowances twice a year, the Chicago tea stall, has it all covered, even as it continues to thrive and grow across the city.

Tucked into a residential corner of Adyar, it is not an easy task to find this stall. But once you do manage to walk into the Kamarajar avenue, the crowds and the sweet smell of boiling tea will lead you right to this unassuming tea stall. 

At first glance, Chicago is no different from the hundreds of other tea stalls that serve the city and provide employment to lakhs of workers. The shop itself is just a 15 ft by 10 ft room, with a kitchen in the back. But what sets it apart from its counterparts across Chennai, is its name and the values it operates on. 

The tea stall was started 33 years ago by Sukumaran, a Malayali who came to Tamil Nadu in search of work. He worked in multiple tea stalls under laborious conditions. Eventually, a fight with his employer and a legal battle that followed, led to him start his own business.

Burned by his own experience, Sukumaran was determined not to repeat it with his employees. Hence the unique name of the tea stall.

"Chicago is a city in America where the first protests for eight-hour work shifts broke out," he says. "In my shop too, I want to emphasise on providing benefits and decent working conditions for my employees. Thus the name," he says. 

Sukumaran is modest, though, about the range of benefits he provides to his employees across six shops in the city.

"We don't do anything great for them," shrugs Sukumaran. "We provide them with accommodation and food for free. Other than that, every year they are given one month's salary as bonus," he adds.

And what are their salaries you ask? The head cook receives Rs 740 a day, the tea master Rs 540 and each server at least Rs 400 a day. That would mean a server at the Chicago tea stall makes about Rs 10,000 a month, working for close to nine hours a day. 

That is not all. "They get Rs 2,000 a year as clothes allowance. Those who have worked for 300 days in a year get a 2gm gold ring as a gift. On May Day, we take them to a five-star hotel and buy them all lunch," he adds. 

Sukumaran is an active member of the CPI (M) in Tamil Nadu and makes no bones about the fact that all his actions are rooted in the ideology the party subscribes to. "As a communist, it is my duty to ensure my employees are happy. When someone has worked with me for long enough, I set up a new shop and let them run it. They pay me rent in return," he says. 

The impressive benefits provided to employees, however, does not affect the prices on the menu board. The cost of a single tea is Rs 8, a plate of two idlis sell for Rs 12 and an egg aapam comes for Rs 25. The rice items on the menu that include lemon and tomato rice are all priced between Rs 30 and Rs 40. Sukumaran says he gets thousands of loyal customers every day and makes about Rs 30,000 to Rs 40,000 on a weekday. 

"The place may not look all that great but there is consistency in the quality of the food," says 61-year-old Manian, a consultant who takes a detour from his route to Thuraipakkam to visit the tea stall. "I can afford much more, but I come here because I really like Sukumaran as a person. Compared to other tea shops, he pays his employees well. He keeps his prices low but succeeds due to the sheer volume of sales," he adds. 

Manian has been visiting this stall for the last 15 years and says people in the neighbourhood look up to Sukumaran and believe that he is doing a lot of good. 

His employees meanwhile, can't stop praising the tea stall owner. "We are very happy," says John, a Malayali who has been working as a server for the last ten years. "I used to be an auto driver and even worked in other tea stalls. But nobody else has taken care of our needs this way," he claims. 

Does he have any of the gold rings he was gifted. "I sold them soon after I got them," he adds sheepishly. 

As Manian suggests, the Chicago tea stall gets customers from all classes of society. For several people who come there, Sukumaran’s benefits policy has proved inspiring. 

Senthil, a customer who runs a start-up in Adyar, says, "It is really important to keep your employees happy. I think I should learn to implement such schemes to ensure lesser attrition rates."

But it is Sagar, an IT employee, who asks the question that we all have in mind, "I don't mind working here part time. Does he have vacancies?"

Well in case you are wondering too, yes he does!