Yaza is a quirky little café in a corner of the Montgomery car park that has carved a reputation for very good food at great prices, and of course their cheese scones are world famous in New Zealand.
Kelly Malone and Karen Butson bought the café in 1999, about six months after it opened, making it arguably café in Nelson that has been continuously owned by the same people for the longest time.
While they still own Yaza they have passed the management over to Beth Phipps while they do other things.
Yaza has been a favourite place of mine to grab a coffee for a number of years, in fact for a few years it was an extension of my office, I had plenty of meetings there and probably drank too much coffee and had too many cheese scones.
I don’t tend to have meetings there these days but I do still enjoy their coffee, scones and other food from time-to-time.
As happens when you go to a place regularly you get to know the staff so I have known Phipps since she started working at Yaza about ten years ago.
Last week she came to our office and we made her a coffee to enjoy while we chatted about Yaza and what she does, it turns out she does just about everything from washing dishes to making coffee, serving customers and managing the staff.
Having this responsibility is a big turnaround for someone who had issues with self-confidence because she had alopecia (hair loss) as a teenager; the alopecia meant she didn’t have the confidence to go to school and left when she was just 13 years old, she did go back a couple of years later but the real turning point in her life was enrolling in a course at the Nelson Training Centre (NTC) run by Dave Agnew.
“Dave does a fantastic job, if it wasn’t for him I don’t know where I would be right now, I was going through a huge amount and didn’t want to go to the course but the tutors really understand you and want to help you, it is a fantastic place with a great bunch of people” Phipps says.
While she is from Nelson the family traveled around New Zealand during her young years before settling in Motueka when she was nine.
“Because I had alopecia I found school tough, I left when I was 13, moved to Nelson when I was 15 and went to Nelson College for Girls for about three months but really struggled in the school environment.
“I got alopecia again while I was there and as a teenager that was tough, I was due to start a course at the NTC but all of my hair fell out this time so I didn’t start that course, it was a really tough time psychologically and eventually attending the course at NTC turned my self-confidence and life around, I can’t say enough about what a great job they do.”
“Once I realised they were there to help me I did really well and decided hospitality was my thing..”
Malone and Butson had a strong relationship with NTC and often employed young people who had been through the course, Phipps was one of those young people joining Yaza in 2007 when she was just 15 years old.
“Some people thought Yaza was a bit weird and alternative when the café first opened, they were doing things that were really quite different in those days, now others are doing similar food so it wasn’t so weird after all.”
“All sorts of people come in these days, we have lots of support from local businesses who come in for coffee and morning tea or for lunch, retired people who come in to read the paper and have a tea or coffee, lots of travellers drop in for breakfast and at the back of the café we have some sofas parents love to relax in with their kids. If you want to see a cross section of society in Nelson just come on in to Yaza”
Now that she is managing the café she is working about 40-50 hours a week and giving other young people a chance like the one she had.
“I remember what it was like when you start at the bottom in a hospitality business, you basically just do the dishes for eight hours a day, I hated doing dishes then but now it is one of the jobs I love, it gives me time out from customers and staff, I can just wash dishes and don’t need to think about anything
“But because I know what it is like when you start I try to give new people different things to do, not just dishes.”
Phipps is also hugely appreciative of the opportunities Malone and Butson have given her and of the faith they have in her, “Kelly wants me to be doing about 35 hours and focusing more on management, working on the business with him rather than just in the business with the aim of me eventually buying it from them.”
“When I was hired Kelly said it was for maternity leave cover and it would probably be short-term but the person never came back and I never left, then pretty much as soon as I was 18, I was made the manager and haven’t looked back.
“We are really lucky that we have had some really creative cooks and chefs over the years, they all bring something to the business, Amy (Putt) had been here nine years, and the guys serving customers are simply fantastic to work with, I want them to love their work because the customers see that love in the food and service.”
Over the years for a lot of students who completed the course at NTC Yaza was the first place they worked, “we used to get a lot of staff through them but now the courses are longer they don’t have as many people but one day when we were really short of staff with people away sick I rang Dave to see if he could help and he sent students over, it was bloody awesome to be able to get help like that.”
But it is the food that keeps people coming back, the cheese scones are without doubt the best I have had in Nelson, and probably anywhere else for that matter. These scones don’t have a bit of melted cheese on top, the cheese is melted right through the doughy treat with a little bit of spice to wake up your taste buds; my tip of the day is to get a scone that is crispy around the edges.
“Our food is also really well priced, in fact I can see people thinking ‘only $10, probably won’t get much for that’ but we aren’t stingy on our serving sizes.
Yaza is also available as a venue to hire so they have a number of small music gigs and hosts a programme called ‘Spirited Conversations’ on the fourth Wednesday of every month, “these can be hugely popular depending on who the speaker is, by far the most popular has been Sir Geoffrey Palmer who has had the place packed on a couple of nights.
“The first time he spoke I was totally overwhelmed by the number of people, I was surrounded by a huge number of people and didn’t have clue how we would cope but we did, you just have to serve everyone as well as you can in the circumstances, a smile goes a long way.”
Yaza are currently turning their loading bay into outdoor seating with a deck, some leaners and tables and are soon to start opening at 7am instead of 8am.