Two Auckland friends have combined their love of tea with their passion for te reo Māori – and turned it into a business.
In India, chai wallahs are an institution — you’ll find one in every alleyway, on every street corner and railway platform, making and selling tea to thirsty customers.
Half a world a way in Aotearoa, we have our own chai wallahs of sorts in Whitney Wainui and Whitney Nicholls-Potts, whose tea stall pops up in Auckland’s Grey Lynn Farmers Market every Sunday.
Wainui (Ngāi Tūhoe, Ngāti Porou and Ngāriki Kaipūtahi) and Nicholls-Potts (Ngāti Kurī) are a pair of tea-loving friends whose fledgeling business, Whitney and Whitney’s Kapu Tī, is based on the culture of tea bringing people together.
The Whitneys met at New Year’s Eve a couple of years ago through their partners. It wasn’t that kind of New Year’s though — both were pregnant at the time. “We just clicked,” explains Nicholls-Potts (30). “We’re both Aquarius, both called Whitney, we were both hapū and having boys.”
Wainui needed a midwife, so Nicholls-Potts recommended hers. They soon became firm friends, and tea became central to their catch-ups. “Getting together, we’d always share kapu tī,” says Wainui (28) “and just organically it grew from there.”
After their babies were born (Wainui’s boy Quincy came along 10 weeks after Wiremu; they’re now 17 months and 20 months) and they got past the “stuck on the couch with a newborn” phase, they started thinking they could have a few hours off on a Sunday to serve some chai at the Grey Lynn Market. “It was Whit’s idea because she makes bomb as chai,” says Wainui.
Nicholls-Potts had the experience — while at university in Wellington (she studied communications at Massey), she’d worked at tea shop t Leaf Tea, and later ran a chai stall in Whanganui. “I just loved the history of chai and what chai was about — the manaakitanga aspect of chai,” she explains.
Chai, or more specifically, masala chai — the milky spiced tea that’s part such a big part of life in India (chai just means tea) — may not at first glance appear to have much to do with the concept of manaakitanga that’s so central to te ao Māori. But for Nicholls-Potts they fit together perfectly — the idea of warmth, generosity and hospitality. Just as important as chai wallah culture in India is tea’s place in the home, where it’s used to welcome guests and has become a symbol of hospitality.
“Our teas are inspired by whānau gatherings,” explains Nicholls-Potts. “I love having people over and I love food and I love drinking tea, so the manaakitanga aspect is where it started for us because we’d go over and be stressed-out, tired mums and either of us would make a beautiful cup of tea.”
They began serving cups of chai and a couple of other tea blends at the Grey Lynn Farmers Market last year. “Then we got some fans and it was coming up to Christmas and people said ‘why don’t you try packaging it and we can buy it as a gift?” recalls Wainui. “So Whit got a little recipe together and we figured out a step-by-step guide on how you can make this chai at home, and it grew from there, really.”
Their chai blend is made with pre-roasted whole spices — cinnamon bark, star anise, cloves, cardamom pods, fennel seeds, black peppercorns, ginger — mixed with black tea. Called DIY Chai, it comes with instructions on how to prepare it: boil the chai mix in water, add milk and sugar or honey and simmer, then serve.
“You read the situation and the āhua of your manuhiri before you make the chai,” explains Nicholls-Potts. “That’s what I love about it — every chai can be done differently. As long as you have the pot on the stove and the spices there, you can add more of this or that.”
It wasn’t just their delicious tea that earned the duo fans at the market — their eagerness to promote te reo Māori also struck a chord.
“We just started out being like ‘let’s say kia ora, let’s not say hi’,” explains Nicholls-Potts. “That was our first policy, we always say kia ora or mōrena. And out of that came people going, ‘oh, I’ve been learning te reo, then we’d practise ‘e pēhea ana koe?’
“And now we’ve got people who can order their kapu tī in Māori and we can have a kōrero, and people whose kids are in bilingual units and they send them up to order kapu tī for them.”
They also write different kupu (words) on their cups to aid customers’ learning. “We didn’t know if people were noticing so we stopped doing it one day, but then people said they missed the kupu so we were like OK, that’s a thing, we’ll do that,” recalls Nicholls-Potts.
Their packaging and newly launched website are also bilingual.
Both women are themselves learning the language. Nicholls-Potts’ father is a fluent speaker from the far north who teaches te reo through Te Wānanga o Aotearoa, but she mainly grew up with her Pākehā mother in Dunedin. She began her learning in earnest a few years ago as one of her dad’s students.
“It’s definitely been an emotional journey. Being in Dad’s class, that whole thing was really major for me in terms of feeling more grounded and more connected as I learnt,” Nicholls-Potts explains.
Wainui’s father, meanwhile, comes from the east coast. “He’s from that generation where it was beaten out of them”, she explains. There are no fluent speakers left in the immediate family, although her younger brother, Chiefs rugby player Sean Wainui, tries to speak te reo when he’s interviewed on TV.
“I think we’re all trying to make an effort,” says Wainui. “And with the babies, we want them to have the reo, so we need to have the reo to speak to them and understand them!”
“We’re lucky we can walk in both worlds quite easily, though sometimes I’m definitely more whakamā about walking on the Māori side and that’s just about being connected, really — going home often,” she says.
“Having our business be kaupapa Māori, having that as the foundation from which we do everything, feels so right,” adds Nicholls-Potts. “It’s the values that underpin it — the tikanga.”
Using traditional Māori plants in their teas has also become a focus. Their popular Herb Brew is made from peppermint, kawakawa and mānuka leaf, and they recently harvested kūmarahou for a special tea blend.
“The whole process from bush to home to curing it and then to making tea has been a really lovely process,” says Nicholls-Potts. “Then sharing it with people, and especially the benefits of drinking it.”
“It’s about using the plants that we have in our backyard,” adds Wainui, “because we have so many beautiful resources and I think we don’t really know how beneficial they are for us.”
“I grew up traumatised from Dad boiling up rongoā to disgusting blackness and being like ‘drink it, girl!” laughs Nicholls-Potts. “He was always pointing out different plants and as a kid, I’d be like ‘oh yep, what’s that, I dunno’, but it’s cool because now as an adult I do care about it. We had a kawakawa plant at my flat in Grey Lynn so I’d start brewing up fresh leaf kawakawa for me and my flatmate. Once you go from there you want to try heaps of different things.”
In addition to the five core teas available on their website, at the market and from selected suppliers, the pair create one-off teas specially blended for different events — they’re currently working on a ‘resilience’ blend for a wellness retreat, and for a Ngāti Kurī hui, a Japanese green tea with mānuka inspired by the special significance to the iwi of the kuaka (bar-tailed godwit), a bird that flies from the far north to Japan and back each year.
The pair emphasises their business is still very small, but they have big plans. The ultimate dream is to open their own teahouse.
“I think we could definitely trial a pop-up teahouse within the next year,” says Wainui. “We could do a six-week free te reo lesson and serve our tea… that would be awesome.”
The Spinoff’s beverage content is brought to you by Fine Wine Delivery Co, which is completely and utterly devoted to good taste, whether it’s wine, food, craft beer, whisky, rum… Check out their website or pop into one of the two Auckland superstores.
The Spinoff Daily gets you all the days' best reading in one handy package, fresh to your inbox Monday-Friday at 5pm.