Bringing Japanese Culture to the Gulf: Amazing Tea and Esthetics at Chawan.
Chawan is a Japanese teahouse in Amwaj, Bahrain by Budoor Steele.
Bader: Would you mind telling me about yourself?
Budoor: My name is Budoor, and I have a Japanese teahouse. The inspiration came from a Japanese tradition called hanami—drinking tea under the cherry blossom tree.
What significance does this hold to you—the Japanese aspect of it?
I lived in Japan for three and a half years. I really fell in love with the culture, and wanted to bring a little piece of Japan back to Bahrain.
What was it about the Japanese culture that you found really unique, and interesting enough to bring to Bahrain?
The way that they live their lives, everything is about balance. Nothing goes to waste. They really care about their health and portion control, and the value of nutrition in everything they eat. They always have a balanced meal.
What is your business called?
Chawan. A chawan is actually a big tea bowl that’s only used for Japanese green tea. Macha, for example, is a creamy Japanese green tea. It’s really bitter, but full of antioxidants.
And why is the tea bowl significant in the Japanese tea-drinking ceremony?
It is the only bowl they use to serve macha, but also there’s a whole ceremony that the chawan is used in. There’s a specific way you serve the tea, a specific way you drink the tea. Usually, chawan cups have really beautiful decorations that are hand-drawn on each cup. You turn the cup three times, look at the decoration, enjoy the art, and drink the tea—and then turn it back and then give it to the server.
Where is Chawan?
Chawan is located at Amwaj-Lagoon, Gates Three and Four. It’s directly above CitiBank, on the second floor.
What else do you serve?
I serve traditional Japanese snacks such as Onigiri—a triangular Japanese rice ball. A lot of people know it because they watch anime, and characters always eat it in anime. It’s a triangular piece of rice, stuffed with different things. We have three different kinds: chicken, kani (crab), or Tuna Mayo, which is the most traditional one in Japan.
What was starting your business like? How as the journey? Was it challenging?
Very, very challenging. I didn’t have a lot of support, so I just kind of did it on my own. I took the risk. I had been wanting to do this for five years before I actually started. Every single piece that’s in the shop, I actually collected while I was in Japan. Every piece is different. There is a city called Imari, and that’s where the original china design started. It used to be closed in order to preserve design secrets, but nowadays it’s open to the public. I was privileged to actually go and visit there. It’s really, really interesting. I mean, all of the tea cups I have are hand-drawn. It’s very delicate and expensive. I have a display of over 30 pieces on my tea bar, and people can come in, choose a teacup, and drink from it. Every time they come, they can pick a different teacup, just to enjoy the beauty of the art that’s on each one.
What kind of support were you hoping to get when you first started?
I just took out a loan and did it.
In terms of marketing, is there anything that hasn’t worked?
I’m not getting as many customers as I should every day, and I’m still not covering all of the bills. I’m not breaking even, but everybody who comes in—keeps coming. New people say, “We’ve never heard of this place. How come we’ve never heard of it?” I’ve done interviews—newspapers and magazines. I spoke with Imran Al-Aradi, and he talked about it on the radio, but it’s not enough. I have to reach more people in Bahrain, and in different areas.
What is working, marketing-wise?
Why do you think it’s working?
Because I always ask everybody who comes into the shop for the first time, “How did you hear about us?”
I’m currently going through your Instagram. Okay, I do see the rice now.
We also have a chicken dish made of a specific Japanese rice called taki gomigohan. Nothing is fried. We don’t use sugar or dairy. I’m trying to show people how to be more self-conscious about their food and what’s in it.
What about your dessert options?
My dessert options sometimes contain sugar, but I’ll use brown sugar or no sugar. As for everything, there’s a dairy-free option, a sugar-free option, and a fat-free option.
There’s only one thing. It’s like a cookie, made from homemade chocolate. We make the chocolate here—it’s clean chocolate. There’s no sugar in it.
Is anyone doing anything similar in Bahrain?
I researched this before I opened Chawan, and I haven’t found anyone. I feel like people are slowly starting to get more health-conscious, though, and trying to eat healthier.
And if things go well? Let’s say by the end of this year, things pick up—are you planning to expand in Bahrain, or perhaps beyond Bahrain?
Yes, I am. I want to expand in Bahrain, but also I’m planning—if it works out and it’s successful—to have different branches, maybe in Dubai or Saudi.
Did you have any mentors along the way, anyone who influenced you positively or helped you start this business?
My Japanese teacher in Japan. And the most important person: my mom.
Did you take a major risk that helped you move this business forward?
The whole thing was a major risk. I didn’t know if it was going to work out or not. I just gave it my all. I put all of my savings into it, and took out the loan. I was working at that time, but then I lost my job. I didn’t know how I was going to pay for the loan. I got another job at an Arab TV station, working 12-hour shifts every day. I was still coming to the shop afterwards, for a total of 18 hours per day. Then it just worked out. They shut down the station, so I’m working here full-time now. I’m also a graphic designer, and I branded Chawan completely on my own.
That’s really good. You saved on a lot on graphic design costs.
Yeah, I did. And I also did the graphic design of course with Tamkeen, which helps me with designing everything for Chawan. I give them credit for that.
That’s excellent. Would you recommend that other aspiring entrepreneurs take the same risks?
Of course, because if you are passionate about something, you have to just go in. You can’t keep wondering, what if? I mean, you only have this one life, and if you don’t strive to achieve your goals, then why are you here? Why are we all here, right?
Yeah, definitely. If you were sitting in front of a few students who were planning to graduate and start their own businesses, what else would you tell them?
That they have to do their research before starting anything. It’s really crucial to know the market you’re targeting. Prepare for failure so you can overcome it.
Thank you so much.