Over the years many cafés, bars and restaurants have come and gone from the dining scene in Nelson with only a handful leaving a permanent footprint while others seem to have just quietly gone away.
Even though it has been gone for many years people from all around New Zealand, and in fact the world, remember Chez Eelco with great fondness and I think Lambrettas Café in Hardy St has established its place as one of Nelson’s institutions.
From its opening in October 1999 it has been a success story from the outset with a menu that has something for everyone and great outdoor north-facing seating that captures the bright Nelson sunshine we all love.
Lambrettas café was originally set up by four partners but since 2005 it has been owned solely by Rhys and Leanne Odey, two of the original partners and last week I sat down with Rhys and we talked about a wide range of hospitality topics over a couple of cups of Lambretta’s great coffee and a delicious custard square.
Odey say it is amazing just how much the industry has changed in just over 17 years, they opened just a few months after Café Affair and the original Vic Rose pub, “places just pumped in those days, after work on a Friday night at the Vic was just crazy, it’s a different game now with changed drinking laws.”
When Lambretta’s opened back in 1999 they were open seven days for lunch and dinner “but in about 2008 when we owned it outright we decided to cater for breakfast & lunch, we had a young family so wanted to be home at nights and it means the changed alcohol laws haven’t had a huge impact on us.”
I asked him about some of the other changes and challenges he has experienced and his first impulse was to tell me if it wasn’t for the fantastic staff they have had over the years it would have been much tougher.
“We have been really lucky to have such outstanding staff for so many years, Jim Lillico has been our head chef since 2010, Fiona Warner has been with us for 15 years is super amazing, she can turn her hand to everything from helping in the office to running front of house and baking for us.
“I have been in this game a long time, have had a lot of staff over the years and she is just a star then there is George our barista who has been with us for about seven years, great coffee is so important and he just makes perfect coffee every time.
And of course Leanne keeps me on track and let’s me know if I am getting it wrong, she is my rock in both our business and personal lives.
“We met when we were both working at Horatio’s back in the day and we have been together for about 25 years so she knows how to handle me” he says with a smile.
I think staff who are appreciated do a great job for their employer and comments like these are reflected in the Lambretta’s experience, it is a cheerful happy place to walk into, has a great buzz, the food is fantastic and the service is always efficient and happy.
One of the changes Odey has seen over the years is the big growth in breakfasts, “when we first opened we didn’t serve breakfast because we had staff working getting ready for lunch and dinner so we thought we may as well open the doors then too, mainly for coffee in those days, but now breakfast is a big part of what we do.
“I think the Nelson population is a bit more mature in its outlook to dining and see buying a good breakfast as something normal rather than something special.
“Back in the early days coffee was a huge thing for us but there is so much competition in the market now, you can get coffee from anywhere, even supermarkets and service stations as well as the obvious coffee carts and other café’s that have opened so our focus is on serving great coffee rather than just coffee as well as having great food with freshly made salads, home baked sweets and gluten free options.”
Lambrettas have their own coffee blend roasted for them by Pomeroy’s and if you love it as much as I do you can buy some coffee beans to take home with you too.
There is something else that I think sets Lambrettas apart from many other cafe’s, Odeys’ background and training; his first job in hospitality was as a kitchen hand at the Hermitage at Mt Cook before moving into restaurant service at the Hermitage where it was all formal silver service with a focus on making sure every detail was taken care of.
One of my pet hates is walking into a café and having to sit at a table with dirty dishes on it, customers deserve better and Odey understands that, walk into Lambretta’s and you won’t find the previous diners used cups and plates sitting on empty tables because they are cleared away and tables wiped down as the previous satisfied customer walks out the door.
While we chatted Odey was looking around the café, keeping an eye on everything and we were politely interrupted by a visitor from out of Nelson who asked him about his t-shirt and where he could get one, Rhys took his card and told him he would email the details and he proceeded to browse the internet as we chatted so he could send it to the guy, he goes to every effort to make sure the customer gets what they want.
Of course the food in a cafe is important too and at Lambrettas nothing is deep fried, everything is made fresh on-site except for breads and custard squares, “I am not a custard square fan but we have found someone who makes great custard squares so why would we want to make them, I might be biased but I think the quality of food coming out of the kitchen is very good” he says.
“You can’t let people down, you need to make sure the food and service is top notch if you are going to survive in this industry.”
When I asked him about what the future holds he said he is concerned about the future of the inner city, “what will happen if shops like Farmers move out of town, what effect will that have on the feel of the city?
“Small boutique shops have disappeared, there are people who don’t come to the city anymore because they don’t need to, the face of shopping has changed and if some of the bigger stores leave I am concerned about who will take up those large spaces.
“Foot traffic has changed in our area as businesses around us have changed so we need to make sure we stay on top of our game and people want to go out of their way to come to us, I am confident we will be ok because we have such a great loyal customer base and we get a real happy buzz in the place.
“We still have some customers who have been coming in for 17 years, some say we need to change the décor but it is a wee bit funky, others tell us they love it and it works so why change it, at the end of the day it is about having a great product and great service.”
Reflecting back on when they started Odey said they were advised not to open by a local businessman.“
Café Affaire and Vic Rose had just opened a few months before us and he said there wasn’t room for another café; he has been a regular customer since day one and I always have a wee smile to myself when he walks in.”