On a chilly Friday evening in January, a group of friends in their 20s found themselves craving a cold, sweet drink with the traditional flavors of their South Asian heritage. They entered Chashni Bubble Tea, a shop that opened in September on Coney Island Avenue, in a part of Brooklyn’s Midwood neighborhood known as “Little Pakistan.”
Inside, clients chatting in Punjabi, Urdu and English waited for their orders amid sounds of chopping and crushing almonds and pistachios. The shop owner, Shabnam Ajmal, had stepped out, and her son and nephew were running front-of-house operations.
Two of the young men who had just arrived, Hamza Kayani and Sajawl Sajid, were repeat customers; they had brought along a third friend they knew since middle school. Like Epicenter, they had learned of Chashni through a recent Muslim Foodies Instagram post.
They were drawn to the traditional “cultural” flavors with kulfi (ice cream) or non-kulfi options, like malai, a clotted cream drink from South Asia. While the third in their trio, Assam Sajid, slurped his mango drink, his companions filled up on falooda, which is made with ingredients like milk, sweet basil seeds, corn starch vermicelli, nuts and rose syrup. Such nostalgia-inducing flavors, alongside chitchat in a cozy space, keep the shop feeling more like a family reunion.
The woman behind the milk drink dream
Ajmal started the shop at age 54 after a career in social services. She had most recently served as a social worker and coordinator in Bensonhurst at an elder care center.
“Those are the people that [especially] need love,” Ajmal told Epicenter of the mostly Arab and Latin American mixed community of elders. “They need a good environment to reduce frustration, anxiety. So we have to engage them with different activities and to do something which makes them happy and makes them comfortable. That’s what makes me happy; I have done something to make them a little cheered up.”
That job also allowed Ajmal ample opportunities to exercise her creativity, something she credits for the recipes she later concocted for Chashni. At the adult day care center, she would craft seasonal decorations for parties, leaving no curtain or table unadorned.
Similarly, the drinks in her shop feature pretty pinks, pastel greens and buttercup yellow hues. The shop decor is flowery, with an artificial rose vine framing the wall where clients hang out.
Ajmal had envisioned this enterprise as an oasis for others and also for herself, she said. After immigrating from Lahore, Pakistan to Brooklyn with her husband in 2001, she had worked in a string of helping professions — a medical assistant and a clerical associate in Coney Island Hospital’s pediatric department. Finally, after the 2008 recession brought layoffs, she had taken the plunge to start another kind of creative small business — true to her flowery aesthetics, it was called Tulip Beauty Salon.
“The things that I always like to do are to help the people and to create things, like the coloring and cutting of hair and makeup and decoration,” Ajmal said.
But her first business venture was cut short when Hurricane Sandy left her salon battered and equipment destroyed in 2012. The venue had been located in Sea Gate, near the Coney Island boardwalk.
“It got ruined,” she said. “I was so desperate, upset. I had opened up that salon as my dream.”
A dream deferred, a sickness healed
Ajmal put the dream of having her own creative business on hold for a while after her apparently healthy son suffered a brain hemorrhage.
“It was so unexpected,” she recalled. “It shook me.”
What followed was a series of surgeries and more than seven months in recovery for her son. During this time, “I was so depressed and so upset and my mind was frozen,” Ajmal said. “It looked like my whole world was gone, but there was hope. God will always do the best for us.”
When her son recuperated, Ajmal decided not to return to her job at the adult care center. She was weak; witnessing her son’s sickness and not knowing when or how he would heal had broken something inside, she said.
“I started thinking, ‘let me do something for myself,’ because God forbid, my son, if something happens, and my husband, he’s not that healthy [either],” she recalled. “I have to be very, very strong to survive, so I have to do more for myself financially … for my good future and maybe to provide a good future for them.”
The fruits of a family-supported dream
Ajmal had often passed by bubble tea shops in or near their Bensonhurst neighborhood and noted how popular they were. But businesses like Kung Fu Tea and Tiger Sugar were made in a different Asian tradition. She had a hunch creating her own recipes for a South Asian take on bubble tea would be a hit.
With support from her family, Ajmal tested out recipes in her kitchen, and bought a small space across from a jewelry store where she had once worked and where her family had ties within the Pakistani community. Her son-in-law, who is a visual artist, designed an appetizing logo. Her children (she has three daughters and one son) took turns running the shop, which is open seven days a week.
One of the toughest challenges for her mother, her daughter Ammara recalled, was navigating paperwork and city regulations. After the building inspection, the city asked them to build a higher barrier between customers and the shop operations. Doing so set back the opening of their business by a few months.
At first, like many new small businesses, promoting the shop was another challenge, according to Ammara. During those early months, apart from the social media posts their family was publishing, Ammara would knock on doors and distribute flyers at schools.
Over the past few months, Ajmal’s family has seen her reap the fruits of their labor in a steady stream of business.
“We knew that this was something she wanted for a very long time,” said Ammara. “She wanted her own business, she wanted to make her own money, she wanted to be independent. So now that her business is up and running, we’re extremely happy for her … We see her working 12 hours a day, but it makes us really happy that she is putting work into something that she loves as her baby.”
Ajmal shared her hopes that other immigrant women with entrepreneurship dreams “don’t let [their] dream die; wait for the time to come and anything will be possible. That’s what happened with me.”
Chashni Bubble Tea
Location: 1061 Coney Island Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11230
Hours: Monday-Friday 1:30 p.m. to 10 p.m.
Saturday-Sunday 1:30 p.m. to 11 p.m.
Contact: (929) 620-6651