Inspiration for Astoria

img-911145551-0001

The inspiration for Astoria came from all the cafes we had visited throughout Europe. Our idea was to open a place that looked like it had been there forever. Old, established and part of peoples’ everyday routine. Given that the site for Astoria was in a brand new building we had to work quite hard to get the look we were after. However despite this we have had many customers over the years who have asked what was here before the cafe. So I guess they think it is an old space.

During our time in London we, along with all our New Zealand friends, spent pretty much all our money on travel – hence the appeal of not paying rent. However, unlike most Kiwis who made their way round Europe taking in the Munich Beer Festival and the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona, we trawled round the grand old cafes of Europe. Our best buddy Richard would usually travel with us. He was the official photographer on these trips, documenting the fantastic cafes we discovered along with the awful 80s outfits we wore. All these trips were done on the smell of an oily rag sadly so we never got to go all-out and partake in elaborate meals or drink great wines. We did however get to soak up the atmosphere of these grand establishments which was fine by us.

Our trips included Portugal where we discovered the gorgeous Cafe Majestic in Oporto and Brasileira in Braga, which provided the inspiration for the outdoor lights at Astoria. We also did a fantastic trip through eastern Europe not long after the Berlin Wall came down to Istanbul, Sofia, Bucharest, Budapest, Prague, Vienna and Berlin discovering wonderful old cafes wherever we went. A memorable highlight was having afternoon tea at Demels, a very old cafe and bakery in the centre of Vienna. Here we spent 60 pounds on cakes and coffee and it was worth every penny. The fact that it was on Janice’s credit card and it took a month to pay back was a small price to pay for the experience of being in one of Europe’s grand old cafes for the afternoon.

 

Little Hut Cheese Rolls

 

 

Cheese rolls are a quintessential south-of-the-Rakaia tearoom staple. Like with the pavlova and the flat white, who made them first and what constitutes a great cheese roll is to this day up for debate.

We all have our favourites and being from Dunedin mine was The Little Hut cheese roll. The Little Hut opened in the 1950s and their rolls eschew onion, onion soup mix or any other variation. It is a purist’s version. A few years ago I rang the owner and asked him if he would divulge his recipe. Lucky for me he was happy to. It involves mild cheese and tasty cheese and that’s about it other than a thick smear of butter on the outside once it has been toasted.

The joy of a good cheese roll is when butter and molten cheese oozes out of the roll and runs down your hand as you bite into it.

Sadly The Little Hut closed a year or two ago. In its honour we re-named our cheese rolls as Little Hut cheese rolls. That way there is no debate as to the recipe.

Cafe Braga & Get Stuffed Catering 1992 – 94

img-815151549-0001

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.

img-815151532-0001

The beginnings

img-911151224-0001

Caffe Astoria opened it’s doors for business on 23rd January 1996. Set up by Janice Kirkwood and Sue Dempsey with business partners Jeff Kennedy and Michael Hirschfeld.

Janice and Sue met in London back in the 80’s, both on their big O.E. This was in the days of squatting and being poor the idea of a free place to live was appealing. Most New Zealanders they knew were squatting at the time, so of course when the opportunity of a place came up they were in. Squats were generally handed on to you by someone you knew, you got given the keys and it became legally yours. Bizarre indeed. Most of the places squatted were unused council houses and flats. They figured better fix them up and make them a home rather than vandals move in and smash them up.

One of the squats they moved into was in the infamous Bonnington Square in Vauxhall. This was an enormous three storied house with 6 bedrooms. Across the street was an old cafe that had closed down and since been squatted. It was known as the Bonnington Square Squatter’s Cafe. A run-down space with mismatched furniture, it did however have a large commercial gas stove. The cafe was run on a roster with different people cooking each night. If you were lucky enough to get a spot, you catered for the evening, prepping, serving and cleaning up. A small sum was paid to the cafe to cover power and gas and the remaining money was yours. You were not talking big money however as the standard rate for a meal was 1 pound. They were lucky enough to secure a spot doing weekend brunch.

The menu would be brainstormed early in the week and all shopping lists and prep lists put together. Then on Friday, Sue would go to the Hammersmith market during lunch break to get fruit and vege which would then be hauled home across London on her bike.  After work they’d nip down to the local Sainsbury for last minute ingredients. Friday night was when all the prep for the following day was done, in the kitchen of their flat. Thinking back they can’t believe their flatmates were so tolerant. Early Saturday morning everything would be carted over the road to the cafe and they would set up shop. The brunches were a huge success. It was the first time anyone had done day time shifts at the cafe and as it was a lovely sunny spot they had no trouble getting the punters in. They also offered coffee which people loved. That was however thier biggest crime – made the night before in a stovetop pot and put into a huge preserving pan which was reheated the following day. Gosh, fancy getting away with that!

They also catered a couple of “orphans” Christmas dinners, one of which was at the Bonnington Square cafe. These were great get-togethers of all their NZ friends who were without family at Christmas. The menu was always a feast including a huge turkey and a “nut” roast for the vegetarians, very 1980’s.

25 years on and Bonnington Cafe is still open and run cooperatively, with a roster of people cooking. Follow the link to their website http://www.bonningtoncafe.co.uk

img-X28124949-0001 img-X28124942-0001

Left; Bonnington Cafe          Right; Bonnington Square squat

Astoria ex staff – where are they now?

_ES_3779-g

In the almost 20 years that Astoria has been open we have employed 604 staff.

Many talented people have worked for us during this time and after leaving Astoria have gone on to finish university study, work in amazing jobs, travel and have families. Some have even opened their own restaurant or cafe.

We thought it would be great to track down as many former Astoria staff as possible to find out where they are now and, more importantly, who they are now.

Over the following months we will be featuring many of these staff on our blog.

We have also joked about having a “Rogue’s Gallery”. There are a few staff over the years who made that status!

Help us spread the word. If you know any former staff, get them to contact sue@astoria.co.nz we can then feature them on the blog.

Celebrating 20 years.

_ES_4089-gOn the 23rd January 2016 Astoria will have graced the edge of Midland Park for 20 years.

As a lead up to this milestone we will be featuring stories about Astoria, our staff, suppliers and customers. These are the people that make Astoria the great place it is.

We will also share recipes and photos from over the years.

Follow our story and be part of our 20 year celebration.

http://www.facebook.com/caffeastoria