It can’t be easy to have your business partner also be your spouse. Michelle and Ramon Puyane epitomize the NuWa’s phrase “Power Couple” and handle this dilemma expertly. From diverse backgrounds and complex cultural ancestry, these two have bridged the divide to create something wonderful. Their business baby, Chalait, is a booming safe haven for New Yorkers in need of a matcha kick and a place to feel warmly welcomed. And, their relationship as business partners and life partners has flourished.
Ramon was raised with a cosmopolitan point of view in a rural landscape: his parents were from Buenos Aires, but he spent his formative years in the countryside of Ireland. Michelle was born in China, and moved to the United States at a young age. He handles the creative aspects of their brand, curating a gorgeous Instagram feed and thinking broad picture about the longevity of their classic aesthetic, while she handles the nitty-gritty, the paperwork and brings the business acumen.
They truly are the perfect pair, beaming with love for each other and their creation. You can taste and see the passion in every Chalait location, menu item, and drink poured. Luckily for us, they invited our team into the flagship Hudson Square location, conveniently on the way to Clarkson Square for easy New York Fashion Week access. We know that matcha is on the radar of every millennial, and Chalait just lept to the top of that list.
So, how did you two meet?
Michelle: We met while working in finance. I was working at JP Morgan in Hong Kong, but I missed America. In my interview process for UBS (a financial services company), Ramon interviewed me over the phone for the position. We didn’t get to meet, but he convinced me how great Stanford, Connecticut would be. (She said this laced with sarcasm.) I took the job.
Ramon: Yes, we were on the same team at work.
So you’ve worked together the whole time you’ve known each other?
Ramon: I guess so, yes!
Michelle: I’ve never thought about it that way, you’re right!
Tell us about the beginning of Chalait!
Ramon: Michelle is interested in hospitality, but wasn’t sure what project to pursue. What really sparked it was when I tasted matcha for the first time in Kyoto. I didn’t drink much tea or coffee at the time, and it was unlike anything I’d ever had before. Strong intense flavor that reminded me of an espresso. I thought, if I can have this experience then other people in New York would appreciate it as well. And the more I read about it: the health benefits, and the ways to prepare it, it all clicked.
Where was the initial location of Chalait?
Michelle: It was on 7th Avenue and Christopher Street. It was a beautiful location, a convergent point of 5 roads in a great neighborhood. We wanted to brighten up that corner of the West Village, which is why everything in our stores is so bright. We wanted to create a jewel box. We’re now in Nomad and Chelsea Market, and our flagship downtown is in Hudson Square. We were the first matcha in Manhattan.
And where is the name from?
We loved our travels to ski chalets in Europe, how cozy they made you feel. We wanted the customer to feel comforted and have a haven to enjoy a nice hot drink. Also, “cha” means tea in lots of different Asian languages, and “lait” means milk. We stumbled upon that combination, and it stuck.
Michelle, did you also fall in love with matcha on your travels?
Ramon: Michelle had always been a fan, and she was more comfortable with it that I was. As a Westerner, I had a very exciting, new experience with matcha for the first time and wanted to bring it back to New York.
Michelle: Growing up in China, it’s a very tea drinking culture. In China, you drink more tea than water! People always have a cup of tea any where they go. When I was working in Hong Kong, I traveled quite frequently to Japan, so I discovered matcha then. Its extremely stressful working in Hong Kong and everyone works long hours. I knew that it was a better, healthier caffeine alternative.
Any other travel highlights? Countries you love?
Michelle: We had both always been travelers, even before we met. Globetrotters. We love South East Asia and Japan, Europe, and Ramon is from Ireland. Japan is always a special place for us to visit. It’s almost like traveling though time. Our favorite coffee shop in Kyoto is run by an 80 year old woman. With no fuss, she brings you coffee and thick toast. It’s authentic, and surreal.
Ramon: And my parents are from Argentina, so we visit every few years. We attempted to learn an Argentinian Tango dance for our wedding in July of 2015, but we opened Chalait and realized we had no time for that. I loved our honeymoon in Spain, and our travels through Italy. We’ll visit my parents in December in Argentina. Perhaps another ski trip to France soon?
So where are you both from originally?
Michelle: I was born and raised in China. At age 11, I moved to the US. My mom is an opera singer, so our family started in Boston for her performing career and then moved to Florida so she could teach. We returned to Boston, where I attended school (She failed to mention that this was Harvard Business School. You go, Michelle!). Next came my foray into the start-up world, and I moved to San Fransisco. It was beautiful there, but I wanted to be more ambitious. I sent my resume out with zero finance background. JP Morgan randomly called me, and five days later, I was moving to Hong Kong. I was there for three and a half years. The UBS finance job where I would meet Ramon brought me back, and I’ve been here since! Finally, I left finance to pursue my passion, running Chalait.
Ramon: I was born in England, but moved to Switzerland at a very young age for my dad’s job. At age 4, we moved to Ireland, but both of my parents are from Argentina. Odd combination, I know. Ireland in the 80’s and 90’s was a little cut off from the world, but my parents exposed me to quite a cosmopolitan point of view. I left Ireland for university in the UK. My job there transferred me to New York in 2002, and I’ve been here fifteen years.
What inspires you to continue working together?
Ramon: This question comes up a lot, because working together as a couple has its challenges. We are more comfortable now. We both care very deeply about Chalait. But, we’ve come to realize that most things are only details. Unless something is totally off brand, or really the wrong direction, you have to be willing to compromise and be flexible.
Michelle: You have to think of your partner as a co-worker. It’s hard to draw that line, but with any job, you have to set boundaries and trust in that person. Placing that trust with your partner is everything. Micro-managing is the enemy, and communication is key to having a great, professional marriage.
Ramon: One of the good things is that we have different skill sets. Michelle is an executer, she can tackle a list, tax forms and DOH applications. I’m more creative, thinking long-term strategy.
Michelle: I work the operational side of things day to day to allow Ramon to think of things in a zoomed-out view.
In a dream world, where would the brand be in a few years?
Michelle: We’d love to grow internally in the next few years. We’re collaborating with Goop, partnering with influential brands, launching soon at Nordstrom‘s heath and wellness section in Janunary, and opening a spot in Next Century, Century 21’s new concept store. We are housed on Day Street in the Financial District for this new millennial-focused retail house.
Ramon: West Coast expansion would also be great. Perhaps along the East Coast, Miami?
What do you love most about working together?
Ramon: The new launches are always stressful, but the launch week is always the most fun thing about working together. We formulate plans, and Michelle gets it done. I love that she finds the time to keep the menu changing, coming up with five new salads every week, testing products, playing chef.
Michelle: I’m always so impressed with Ramon. He works 60 hour weeks in the finance world, wakes up at 5:30am to be at the office at 6:30am, and as soon as he’s done, he transitions right into Chalait work. He curates our Instagram, does all of our marketing. I’m always surprised by his bigger picture thinking. I’ve been wrong on so many occasions, and he’s taught me a lot about being confident in your brand image.
Ramon: Michelle’s connection to our customers is inspiring. I’m not in the store nearly as much, but anytime I’m here, there are ten regulars chatting with Michelle. She has so much time for everyone, so friendly. We’ve created a community.
Our team so agreed. Spending a morning at Chalait is sure to leave you renewed, refreshed and inspired to seize the day. Experience this sense of community at their many locations in New York City: Nomad, Chelsea Market, and Hudson Square. And take note: these two are going to conquer big things together.
Photography via Rachel Kuzma