One of the delights of summer in Nelson is dining outside and one fantastic place to enjoy some sunshine in a wonderful inner city environment is the River Kitchen.
Located at the Visitor Centre in Miller’s Acre this café has huge amounts to offer; located adjacent to the walkway along the edge of the Maitai River it is the perfect place to stop for breakfast, lunch or just coffee and cake.
Clare and Blue Fleming bought the café about three years ago with Clare’s sister Katie and her husband Aaron, but earlier this year the Flemings purchased the other half of the business when Katie & Aaron moved to Australia.
Initially Aaron was the chef and the Flemings ran the front-of-house but both Clare and Blue bring a huge amount of restaurant and hospitality experience to the business they set about transforming into a café that has wonderful fresh food, all made on the premises.
The café caters to a wide range of people, business people wanting some fresh air while they enjoy lunch or just a great coffee while they have a meeting in the sun, people walking their dogs along the river, kayakers and paddleboard riders as well as cyclists and then there are those who just love to relax close to the river environment.
Having great food, very good coffee is essential for a café but the bowls of water outside for dogs to enjoy is another bonus, “a dog friendly environment is a must when your café is located by such a nice walkway” says Clare.
Of course it is the food and coffee that are important to me and Clare brings a huge amount of experience to creating a range of tempting treats and delicious meals, “while I’m not a trained chef I grew up living the hospitality lifestyle because mum owned a number of restaurants in the UK.”
Working in this industry is more than just being able to cook, something Clare has done for more than 25 years; inviting people to your place for a coffee or to dine is more than just great food, it is about the experience you offer and how welcome people feel, it is about hospitality and the total dining experience and when a café gets it right diners feel comfortable and want to go back.
“Growing up in the industry hospitality is ingrained in our family, if we wanted pocket money we had to work for it so we have always worked in the industry, we love it.”
“It is an industry that is both social and anti-social, we get to meet lovely people but we also work some pretty anti-social hours,” says Clare.
“We end up going out after work and meeting other people in the industry, we have met so many people in Nelson since we have owned the cafe but we are always working when friends are going out.”
Blue also has an extensive background in the sector, initially in Auckland where one of his first jobs was at the Hyatt before he moved to Australia and then England where he ended up owning a Cornish Pasty shop in Worcester.
The couple met St Ives, Cornwall where Clare grew up and they lived in Worcester for a while before they opened a restaurant in Bath with her mum, “it was a riverside café with lots of lots of outside seating buy the river so very similar to here”.
In February 2006 they sold everything and moved to New Zealand, when I asked them my usual question of why Nelson Clare said “we couldn’t afford Devonport and didn’t want to live in a big city, Blue’s dad was already here and after we visited him and spent some time here I fell in love with Nelson, Blue found it a bit small but I wasn’t going anywhere else so he suffered and we stayed, I can’t imagine bringing our kids up anywhere else.
“When we moved here ten years ago it was a very sleepy, it wasn’t the vibrant place it is now, Nelson has really grown up, it has a real variety of venues, it’s a fun place to live and is much more sophisticated than when we arrived.”
River Kitchen is open from 7.30am each day (about 8am in the weekends) and Clare says she loves being at the café early in the morning, “it is such a lovely peaceful place at that time of day.”
Blue told me they love the river setting and they have been surprised how busy the area is, “council have just installed new bike stand for the cyclists who use the walkway, kayakers and paddle borders drop in at high tide and come in for a coffee, sometimes they call us from their cell phones to order their coffee and we take it down to them on the river, a floating jetty would be really cool for these people to use.”
The café is also a very popular spot for people walking dogs along the river, so much so that when King Salmon were looking at producing a pet food product “they came down here and talked to dog owners as part of their research to see if there was demand for a new pet food and when they made the product they had the official launch of the product with a dogs breakfast here, it was great fun and really cool to be part of.”
I know from experience that River Kitchen is a fantastic place to have lunch and a few drinks before walking across the road to Trafalgar park to watch a Makos game or to have a birthday party.
Function are a growing part of the business by the river and Clare says “we have had wedding receptions, birthday parties, we have got lots of business parties booked in and if there are more than 50 people they can have the place to.”
River Kitchen is open every day from 7.30am during the week, 8am Saturday and 8.30 am on Sundays, they close at 4pm each day but will probably stay open a little longer in the summer and people can book the café for an evening function.
The most important part of any café is the food and at River Kitchen they make everything in house, “and while we have a young team in the kitchen the chefs are very experienced, the kitchen is run by Rebecca who is a qualified chef, she is young but follows trends and is very knowledgeable.
“Paul was at Harry’s and Jo is our baker and makes all of breads, cakes, pies from scratch every day, we even make our own jams, chutneys, sauces and burger buns; the kitchen team is a small but very effective team” says Clare .
“We use Sublime coffee and our front-of-house manager Andy Waddington is a well-known face around town, he is a great barista and is so experienced he isn’t afraid to tell us what has to happen.”
As well as a menu to order meals from they also have a food cabinet where you can choose your favourite cake, wrap for lunch and small savoury things for a light lunch.
Every café has to have a signature scone and the date orange & coconut scone alone is worth visiting the café to try.
If you haven’t been to River Kitchen then make sure you do soon, it is a wonderful riverside setting where you can enjoy great food, prepared and served with passion.