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Twenty years of chai, tea-making in Red Deer is celebrated through film

Local documentarian makes Telus Optik series about The Chai Wallahs business
Jodi Dore of Red Deer, is owner of The Chai Wallahs tea-making business that she started 20 years ago with her late best friend Heather Christenson, (right). (Contributed photo by Candy Koated Design)

Jodi Dore had her first sip of savory chai tea from a recipe she made with her late best friend, Heather Christenson, about 20 years ago.

“I remember thinking, This has everything that I need: It’s hot — because I’m a cold person — it’s creamy and sweet, with a sugary taste…”

So many friends and family members also liked the chai latte-style tea that the two Red Deer women concocted with a special blend of cardamom, black pepper, cinnamon and other spices that they started selling this loose-leaf masala tea at farmers markets in 2003.

Now, nearly 20 years later, their The Chai Wallahs brand of traditional Indian tea and other products are available at more than 30 gift stores and coffee shops around Central Alberta, Edmonton and Calgary. This includes at Red Deer’s Kerry Wood Nature Centre and Little Red Barn.

Dore admitted she didn’t become a full-time entrepreneur without doing some serious soul-searching.

She was so grief-stricken after Christenson’s death from cancer in 2017 that “I had to ask myself, do I even want to keep doing this by myself?”

The part-time business that she and Christenson started “was never meant to be a money-maker,” she reflected. “It was something Heather and I first started doing because we liked spending time together…”

But ultimately, their local business survived and thrived because of the great community support Dore received — both from mentors and from programs like the Be Awesome seminars put on by the Saskatchewan Development Corporation for female entrepreneurs.

“Twenty years ago, no one knew what chai was — I didn’t know what it was,” recalled Dore. Now even Oprah has inadvertently put chai teas on thousands of coffee shop menus by adding various brands to her Favourite Things lists.

Two decades ago, no one considered cultural appropriation, and Dore — who’s White and has never travelled to India, has become more sensitive to it now after having a few “tough” conversations.

She thinks of herself as trying to honour an old-world tradition and is heartened that a lot of her mentors of Indian background have supported her venture.

More central Albertans are about to learn about traditional teas and this local business after a six-part series Tea — The Chai Wallahs, filmed by local videographer Mukesh Khugsal. He received $10,000 in funding through the Telus Storyhive voices program to film a documentary series, which can now be seen on Telus Optik TV.

The filmmaker met Dore and tasted her authentic tea at Red Deer’s Meet the Streets Festival in 2021. He recalled that an idea for a documentary film came to him about “a woman, far from Asia, who had never been to India, (but) is selling authentic Indian tea. I want to know more about the concept of why she is doing it…”

He sought to answer these questions in his documentary series for Telus Optik. (It can also be seen on YouTube).

Khugsal sees Tea — The Chai Wallahs (Hindi for Tea Sellers) as “a story of two friends, their struggle, their artistic life and ideas, failure, and now a successful brand name.” Through the six episodes “we talk to a lot of people, local businesses who are selling her product, people who initially helped her and some researchers who talk about the medicinal value of chai tea.”

Dore hopes viewers will learn something about a centuries-old Indian social tradition that has evolved into a modern North American coffee-house one — and about the importance of supporting local businesses.

“I celebrate all the different facets that have supported The Chai Wallahs over the years.”