From our experience at Bonnington Cafe in London, running brunch service on Saturdays, we realised that we worked quite well as a team, Janice on the stoves and Sue front of house and prepping. The idea of setting up a cafe back in New Zealand appealed and we decided to do a Restaurant Management course through Leith’s School of Food and Wine. It was a night class and meant going out to Kensington on the tube each week. We completed the course in the hope that it might give us some “street cred” back in New Zealand.
Back in Wellington, we both end up in jobs neither of us was enjoying. A small cafe/deli in Hataitai came up for sale for $15,000. We rashly bought it and with the help of friends transformed the space into Cafe Braga, named after a small town in Portugal. We opened the doors for business in 1992. This 20 seater was our first foray into owning our own business and the learning curve was steep. We also ran a catering company Get Stuffed Catering (we thought that was very funny at the time). The catering was essential as it helped pay the bills.
We started out offering lunch Monday to Friday and brunch in the weekend. Then opened for dinners Wednesday to Saturday.
Braga had a loyal following of mainly local customers, many whom frequent Astoria to this day. In particular the O’Connor family whose frequent custom helped keep us open.
The cafe turned out to be a great gallery space and we had a series of exhibitions by local artists, some of whom were friends. Chris Healey, fresh from art school, exhibited a series of paintings , Anna-Marie O’Brien did a wonderful exhibition of patron saints. There was always an opening party which was well attended and many of the exhibitions sold out. Braga was in fact infamous for its parties. There was always lots of dancing, including on the counter. Many a taxi driver was entertained as they lined up on the rank outside, waiting for a fare.
Through Cafe Braga we met Jeff Kennedy of Caffe L’affare, he was our coffee supplier. We would to go to L’affare and collect our kilo of coffee beans for Braga and treat ourselves to a coffee. On one of these visits Jeff declared that we no longer had to pay for cups of coffee in his establishment. That was music to our ears as we were tight for money in those days.
One day, having a coffee at L’affare with friends from out of town, Jeff popped out of his office and asked if we wanted to go into business with him. He had the floor plan on his desk of a new building under construction in Lambton Quay on Midland Park. Jeff had been approached to see if he was interested in putting a cafe into the space. He was indeed keen but needed working partners to go in on the deal. This is where we came in.
After a lunch at Il Casino with his long time friend and business partner Michael Hirschfeld, a business partnership was formed and we began to plan what became Caffe Astoria. Neither of us knew Michael and we had the cheek to ask about his CV. Little did we know he had been involved in many successful businesses and was soon to become the president of the NZ Labour Party.
After selling Cafe Braga we were taken under Jeff’s wing and employed at L’affare for around 9 months while Astoria was built. This was great experience for us both and we proved to ourselves that we could make the step up from a 20 seater to a much larger cafe. Lucky really, as we ended up with a 150 seater. Thinking back we are amazed we had the guts to take it on. I guess we were young and energetic, fearless and stupid all at the same time.