By: Kat Bein By: Kat Bein | August 8, 2022 | Food & Drink
Looking to spice up your morning routine? Need a decadent midday pick me up? A masala chai latte is delicious, luxurious and overflowing with flavor.
Long a time-honored tradition in India, the aromatic beverage made from a blend of black tea, milk, spices and herbs has become a go-to favorite around the world. Still, it can be hard to find the perfect chai latte on the road, and making it at home is even more complex—unless you drink Dona.
Pronounced like Donna the name, Dona is a small business making big waves; brewing and bottling single-origin, direct-trade teas in New York City and sharing them with chai lovers across the country.
See also: Make the Perfect Cup of Coffee Every Time, Everywhere With These 6 Tools and Gadgets
Not only that, Dona crafts intoxicating spice blends, loose leaf teas, and powerful concentrates packed with turmeric, ginger, hibiscus and more, and its website is full of recipes for bringing that flavor to cocktails, desserts and other delights.
Founded eight years ago by Amy Rothstein and her brother Peter, Dona takes its mission beyond flavor by teaming with farms, suppliers and partners that do more than grow and distribute great products by doing actual good in the world and communities around them.
“It's really just really rewarding and wholesome to be working for a tea company with depth,” says Dona media marketing manager Naomi Bauxprey.
Inspired by Dona’s soulful approach inside and out, we caught up with Rothstein and Bauxprey to hear more about the company’s roots, what it’s like to run a beverage business in the Big Apple, and what flavor combinations are turning heads in the office.
How did Dona first come to exist?
Rothstein: I was 24 when I officially launched the company. I was a kid in grad school at the time, and I needed a job. I was interested in food. I love making things from scratch, and when you're 24, you have this false sense of confidence like, “I can do anything. I'm unstoppable,” so that's what I did!
I made up some recipes. I started talking to people. I was always going into coffee shops, trying local coffee, local pastries and meeting baristas. No one really was taking tea that seriously. It was always glossed over by coffee shops, at least in New York, in most of the coffee shops. So it was my false sense of confidence that said, “starting a business, easy.” I'm 32 now, and I would never! It's too risky. It's too stressful, but I'm really glad I did it.
What have been some of the biggest lessons in these last eight years?
Rothstein: The hardest thing I stubbornly decided was to hang on to being makers, rather than outsourcing the brewing of our chai, or the blending or packaging of our loose leaf teas. That’s why I wanted to be in food; to do something hands-on, to have full control over the ingredients in the process and have that level of transparency, so that Naomi and I aren't just marketing something that we really don't know about.
It makes sense why most food and beverage companies look for manufacturing partners. The learning curve is so steep, from food and safety regulations down to tiny details like what temperature does the turmeric concentrate need to be in order to safely bottle it? We struggled for so long doing everything in the most repetitive, hands-on way. Eddie, from my team who runs all of our operations, has hand-capped thousands of individual bottles because we didn't get a capping machine until a year and a half ago. It's been hard financially, because machines are so costly, but they're so necessary.
Naomi, how did you join the company and what has it taught you?
Bauxprey: I am the newest member to the team with about six months under my belt. I come from 10 years of professional cooking. Maybe it’s the millennial in me, but I love a story, and I've realized the founder's story is also the value story. She did choose the hard route. She did do the literal foot work of making the connections. Whenever we chat with some of our accounts, I hear the way they talk about Amy and Peter, that they've been old friends forever. They can't say that about the other brands. That part has translated into everything about the company.
I have a stay-at-home or hybrid job, but I choose to be at the warehouse. I like to be around these coworkers, and that parallels what the brand is about; the idea of moments for yourself, calm, sharing conscious experience. We aren't some nebulous company that's only got an aesthetic Instagram, because there's a lot of that. From my first interview to the offer, I was like, “I think I'm in the right place. This feels like tribe.”
Naturally, there's a lot of feedback from brown TikTok, brown Instagram, and those brown communities like, “Hey, you're doing chai, and that's traditionally a space brown people have owned.” It's nice to be at a place that addresses it head on and says “we're white owned, that's what the facts are. How do we let people know this is still valuable? How do we let them know we are doing the most good?” The level of transparency from sourcing to practices and beyond, it's just been really lovely to see that. I feel I can stand proudly in this as a brown, black girl and be like, “hey, I think you got this wrong. We are fighting the good fight, and here's all the proof.”
Ethical practices and transparency seem to be a big part of Dona’s DNA. Where do you source your spices, and tell me more about the Chhaya Development Corporation and your relationship there?
Rothstein: Chhaya is a Queens-based economic development nonprofit that helps local communities. Prior to COVID, they did a ton of in-person workshops helping the local communities with housing and financial resources, and business resources for business owners. They help the community not just exist on a day-to-day basis, but place some roots. They're still not running in-person events, but we donate on a monthly basis, no matter if it's July and it's our slow season when we’re losing money. The world is changing, and if you're a for profit company, you have to find a way to exist in capitalism but do a little bit better. It's a fine line. A lot of companies just promote it, and it feels like a marketing tactic. It's a strange world, but we're not using it just to our advantage.
With sourcing, we have a really cool tea partner; a single-family tea estate in India. It’s a direct us-to-farm relationship, and they have a focus on sustainability and social impact, specifically with their local tea growing communities, paying people well and making sure that workers have their rights. They're called Mana Organics, and it's a fourth-generation family farm since India's independence from Britain.
For spices, herbs and botanicals, it's a bit of a different story. Because of the smaller size of the industry, it's not always possible for us to find direct sources, so we’re constantly looking. Right now, about more than half our mint is single origin, its Turkish mint. We have a Nicaraguan farm where we're sourcing turmeric, lemongrass, hibiscus and ginger, and they're really awesome. It's a direct relationship and they have a social impact mission. We get our cardamom directly from Guatemala, and it’s the same thing.
Does it just smell amazing when you walk into your space?
Bauxprey: When I bike, you can smell it from around the corner.
I was looking over all these recipes on your site. What have been some of your favorites?
Rothstein: I have two favorite drink recipes, hands down. One is a spiced apple cider with chai. It's just chai and apple cider heated for an easier version of a mulled cider, and it's really delicious. A lot of our coffee shop partners use our recipes to sell a spiced cider in fall, because coffee shops don't often have a stove top to mull. Number two is a turmeric white hot chocolate, and it is a really elevated, warm, rich drink. It's not healthy, despite having turmeric in it, but really special. With the tea, I have in my freezer some strawberry hibiscus, prosecco popsicles that are really great.
Bauxprey: The flirty mezcal. I got to try it when we were shooting the content for it. Insanely good, tea simple syrup is like, why wasn't I thinking about that? We also did the Odita latte. That was my first time having oditta, which, you had me at “caramelized tea leaf.”
Rothstein: Every night, I cold brew whatever tea I have and then strain it in the morning to have on-demand, home-brewed tea. Two tablespoons or so. We have a recipe for it, but I honestly don't measure it at home. Just tea and water, put it in the fridge overnight, and then it's perfect, no bitterness. It's been really great; way better than water—and I actually drink it.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Visit Dona online to find more delicious recipes; shop the full collection of teas, concentrates and spice blends; and find a local cafe in NYC that carries Dona products.
Photography by: Courtesy of Dona