Meet Michelle Puyane, Founder & CEO of Chalait and former banker at UBS. She shares her story, commitment to Japanese chado or “way of tea”, and practical tips to entrepreneurs looking to start their own business.
With a passion for Japanese tea culture, Michelle Puyane and husband Ramon opened Manhattan’s first matcha-focused cafe — Chalait, a contemporary cafe that makes the specialty green tea approachable while honoring more than a thousand years of tradition. Since launching in 2014, they’ve grown quickly and now operate three neighborhood shops; a flagship café in Hudson Square, one on the Upper West Side and another inside Chelsea Market.
1. As a former FX structurer at UBS, you made one of the biggest trades of your life — leaving a stable job to now being the Founder & CEO of Chalait, a beloved matcha cafe brand. How did you make the leap?
While still working in finance, I dreamed of leaving the stable corporate job to follow my heart into the unpredictable world of food and beverages. But like many budding culinary entrepreneurs, I hesitated at the fork: In one way, leaving the successful career in finance seemed too unsettling; in another, my demanding job was eating at the edges of my creative spirit.
I was lost on which way to go so I took a middle path by enrolling in night classes at the Institute of Culinary Education. It was a way for me to test the waters without putting my career on the line. I thought, let me just learn a little bit about the hospitality industry before I call it quits. But as I met more culinary professionals and connected with their stories, I realized I had to dive in headfirst.
2. There’s a lot of buzz around matcha (and wellness in general) right now. In addition, people cutting corners and in some sense not fully recognizing or appreciating the history of this ceremonial ingredient. How do you stay true to your roots when you know there’s probably ways to make more money?
When we opened Manhattan’s first matcha-focused cafe in 2014, our mission was to honor tradition while making the tea more accessible. Now that we have expanded to three locations, we continue to stay true to our mission and core values. We do this by offering premium ceremonial grade matcha green tea found in Japanese tea ceremonies and serving it in a friendly, contemporary setting.
While many cafes serving matcha source from importers, Chalait seeks to honor Japanese chado — or “Way of Tea” — by forging relationships directly with family owned Japanese farms.
3. Big news, you’re about to be a mom! Managing three cafes with 25 people, do you feel you have to make sacrifices to help streamline your life and company?
Absolutely! Being an entrepreneur, we’re always trying to find some work-life balance in our day-to-day life. As the business picks up momentum, this becomes increasingly challenging and making sacrifices (mostly in personal life) becomes the norm. In the first couple of years, the cafes became our babies in the sense that our lives revolved around the café operation. We took fewer vacations, never made it out to the movies, and didn’t see friends and family as often as we would have liked to.
Now that we are five years in, we have built a great management team and set more systems in place to streamline operations. This has helped me achieve a level of work-life balance that works for my family. Looking at the exciting times ahead, I am certain sacrifices will continue to be made, but I feel more at ease and confident that we will manage with the great team that we’ve built over the years.
4. Being an entrepreneur is often glamorized but we all know that there’s no hack to quick fame or money (nor are they the reasons we started the business). What advice do you have for new or soon-to-be entrepreneurs that may feel like they’re not enough or not growing quickly?
To quote Angela Duckworth, “Enthusiasm is common. Endurance is rare.” I truly believe you must have grit to persevere when you follow your passion. There has been many ups and downs since starting my own business. Often I do find myself pondering whether the current trajectory of the company will translate into the future success.
I think failures along the way and seeing your competitors grow at a faster pace will definitely knock your confidence. At those times, I always remind myself of our core values and the type of company we’re building. By focusing on small wins, we are able to get through tough times on a positive note.
5. Let’s talk about the F word — “finances”. Having dealt with multi-million dollar trades, to now fundraising and managing finances of your own business, what money advice might you have to new entrepreneurs?
Always factor in adequate contingency funding into your business plan. Especially true in the hospitality, build-out cost will always come in higher than budgeted, and most business fail when they don’t budget enough working capital.
6. How does financial wellness look and feel like for you? What does “wellthy” mean for you?
Financial wellness has a very different meaning to me now that I’m building my own company. Of course we cannot feel “wellthy” without some wealth but financial wellness for me is being able to follow my passion and enjoying coming to work on most days.
We all need some financial security and if I get to do what I do while making enough to support a modest lifestyle then I’m quite happy!
More About Michelle Puyane:
Before founding Chalait, Michelle worked in finance as well as tech start-ups applying her Bachelor’s Degree in Mathematics and a Master’s Degree in Statistics. To transition into the hospitality industry, Michelle earned a Culinary Management degree at the Institute of Culinary Education. At Chalait, Michelle serves as the managing partner overseeing the daily operations, and she also works along with Ramon on brand development of Chalait.