Calming and Connecting People, One Cup at a Time
When someone sits down with cup of chai, they’re not just grabbing a hot beverage on the way out the door. That cup is part of an experience, whether it’s connecting with friends or enjoying a tranquil moment of quiet alone time.
No one understands this phenomenon more than Leigh Tillman and Ruthie Ellis, owners of Chai Wallahs. From their homes in Brooksville and South Portland, Ruthie and Leigh lovingly create chai, combining Assam black tea with a unique blend of spices. (A chai wallah, in Hindi, is someone who makes and sells tea.)
In this sometimes crazy, high-speed world, the Maine company Chai Wallahs has grown a fan base of customers who enjoy starting the day or taking a moment of pause with a cup of chai.
Friends and customers have sent Leigh and Ruthie messages such as “starting my day with you,” “feel your warmth as I sip my chai,” “putting my feet up and drinking your chai,” “my partner is with the kids, and I am having a moment by myself, drinking your chai,” and “it’s getting wintry. Time for chai.”
Ruthie describes how their tea is consumed and how making the tea is a part of the whole experience: “Using our Organic Assam chai blend of loose-leaf spices, you bring the spices to a boil in water and add milk and honey, then stain, serve, and enjoy!”
To explain chai to someone unfamiliar with it, Ruthie said, “Chai means ‘tea’ in Hindi. It is a beverage traditionally and widely drunk in India. It is a form of usually black tea that is mixed with aromatic spices, such as cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, and sometimes black pepper (to add a little kick). Chai has a rich creamy taste made with milk and some kind of sweetener—we suggest local honey. It is served up hot on the streets of India, but it can be enjoyed in so many different ways here in the States. Several local coffee shops in Maine serve our chai on their menus as chai lattes, iced chai—lots of creative ways to make it.”It is also used as an ingredient by other Maine companies, in products such as ice cream, mead, kombucha, and cheesecake.
Ruthie and Leigh’s business grew organically, much like their friendship. The two women met in 2008, when Ruthie and her husband came to live on the farm Leigh was caretaking in Brooksville. Leigh had met Ruthie’s husband while doing post-Katrina relief work in New Orleans.
They sold vegetables at farmers’ markets and began selling tea along with the produce. The two women enjoyed not only the act of sharing their tea, but the community of people who congregated at their stall.
“I loved experiencing the conversations that would be sparked as people lingered to drink out of small cups,” said Leigh.
Leigh and Ruthie brought their tea to the Common Ground Country Fair in Unity, where it proved popular as well. Attending the fair is now their fall tradition. With their families in tow, they set up a stand and make thousands and thousands of cups of chai.
“People kept asking us, ‘Where do you get the chai the rest of the year?” said Leigh.
After years of making cups of tea by eyeballing measurements and serving them at fairs and outdoor markets, the two friends got down to business. They created instructions for customers to make the tea at home and offered the tea blend in 4-ounce, 8-ounce and 1-pound packages. The recipe is influenced by teas the two sampled during trips abroad to India and Africa.
Ingredients are thoughtfully sourced, using fair trade and organic items. The Chai Wallahs team keeps freshness and quality in mind when creating the aromatic blend, and the packaging is ecologically sustainable.
A few years ago, Bon Appetit listed Chai Wallahs in the category of “The Best Chai You Can Buy.” They described the drink as having “that serious ginger and cardamom punch you’d experience from a cup poured by a vendor in India.”
That same year, Chai Wallahs’ tea was listed on India.com as one of “Five American Teas that will Remind you of Chai from India.”
Chai Wallahs tea has proved to be popular in Maine, but Leigh and Ruthie also have customers from all over the county. “When we ask people from across the country how they learned about our tea, more often than not we hear, ‘Oh you’re my best friend’s favorite chai, so I had to try your tea for myself,’” said Leigh.
The two women have found a way to balance their busy lives and keep their business going, all while living three hours apart from each other. They meet periodically, at a spot midway, usually by the ocean or in the woods. There, with Maine’s beauty at hand, they discuss the future of the business and catch up on life. It’s been a positive journey, and the two say they have learned so much along the way. They want to grow the business sustainably, keeping true to their core values. Looking forward, Ruthie said, “We hope to gather more and more people around cups of tea and continue to offer a product that is earth-friendly, mindful of others, and delicious to our customers.”
“It’s been an adventure for our family to be able to have my own business and teach my children all sorts of wonderful things through having my own business,” said Ruthie.
She’s found that homeschooling her two boys and running a chai business have blended together quite well in her life. “Our children get to see the underlying of what it takes to run a business. Filling orders shipping and weighing spices all can be applied to their everyday learning skills. My boys have been right my side, working eagerly with me since they were little. Wanting to pour cups of tea for others and deliver bags of chai to stores is a part of their lives and learning,” said Ruthie.
Leigh also runs a facilitation business and finds mixing spices a nice way to unwind and relax at night. Like Ruthie, running Chai Wallahs is a family affair, with her husband delivering orders to local coffee shops and markets and her three-year-old applying shipping labels.
“It’s been right-sized for our lives,” she said.
Chai Wallahs tea is sold in retail and bulk at several locations in Maine and is available online at chaiwallahsofmaine.com