My wife Sari and I have had a long association with The Suter Art Gallery and the Suter Café has been a favourite spot for some time.
The café at the gallery had a bit of a chequered history during the 1990’s and at the time Sari became a Trustee of the former Bishop Suter Art Gallery Trust the café was struggling and eventually closed. The Trustees of the time wanted to revitalise the café to encourage more people to engage with the gallery and wanted someone with some imagination to get it up and running properly.
Along came Linda Walker and her brother Nigel who worked for the company that took over the lease, they created a funky atmosphere using old science work benches from Nayland College and designed a café menu that people loved.
The café quickly became very popular, added a real vibrancy to the gallery and became so popular Linda and Nigel decided it was too much for them and they sold the business to Katrina Kallil and her business partner Nicki Cantrick in 2006.
The café continued to grow and Kallil eventually bought out her partner and has owned the business by herself since 2012.
The Suter Café relocated to Halifax St while the Suter was being redeveloped but has now reopened in a wonderful new space that has a connection with the gallery and the Queen’s Gardenswhile the food is every bit as good as it used to be and the coffee is fantastic.
The woman behind the extraordinary success of the Suter Café brings a huge amount of energy to the business, anyone who goes there is likely to experience her exuberance and love for life that comes from her Lebanese heritage.
Kallil also brings a wealth of experience to the café business, “I’m not a trained chef or anything like that, I learned to cook with Mum and just did what she told me to do, I think the Lenanese are cursed with hospitality, we might want to kill you but we will make sure you are fed very well first”.
The first food business Kallil had was in Queenstown in the late 1980’s “Habebes was a little Lebanese and vegetarian restaurant in the days when you could shoot a rifle down the main street in the off-season and not hit a single person, I was trying to convince Southlanders to have something other than meat & three vege” she says with a laugh but it was a very successful business.
After selling Habebes she moved to Hokitika where she bought a little farmlet , she didn’t know a soul and when the Hokitika Dramatic Society sent out the call for people to take part in a show she went along, got a role and met lots of wonderful people.
After the show she was offered some space to set up a food business and went about creating a little café called Hokitukka.
After Hokitika Kallil moved to Nelson where she met Nicky Cantrick who worked at the Suter Café and was offered the business, she asked Kallil to join her as a partner and the rest, as they say, is history
“When we first took over the business some people thought I was far too familiar, I treated everyone as a great friend or family member and I was welcoming people to the café as it if was my home and even today I want them to think it is their home when they are here, it is that Lebanese openheartedness again but it works.”
While hospitality comes naturally to Kallil running food businesses wasn’t her first love, it was music, “I have always been a performer, I love dancing and singing”.
Kallil sang in bands in Dunedin in the 1970’s and 80’s mainly at balls and private functions like birthday parties, weddings, and business events.
She has a powerful voice, perfectly suited to rock, blues and jazz songs, “I sing other people’s music but in my own way, I don’t write music so don’t have any of my own arrangements.
“I like to think of my shows as music with theatre, shows with humour and pathos, I guess you could call it cabaret but I think it is more music and stories that go together.”
Kallil is combining her love of music and the café by doing a series of six gigs at the cafe over the last two weekends of February 2017, “it is a gift to myself really, I need to use music to express myself.”
With the warm weather of February I am sure it will be the perfect venue to showcase Kallil’s delightful music and entertainment skills, looking over the gardens enjoying fine wines and beers it has all the ingredients of a great night out.
The current café in the wonderful new Suter Gallery building has stunning views over the gardens and ponds with the design of the new building bringing the Queen’s Gardens and the gallery building together, especially the café, resulting in a beautiful little haven in the inner city.
The new building also means the café has a lot more opportunity to cater for functions and events they didn’t have the space or kitchen facilities for in the past.
Kallil says “We have bookings for corporate and small business functions as well as birthday parties weddings and Christmas parties already.”
When Kallil moved back to the Suter Gallery she asked me to give her some guidance on her wine list, after talking about what she wanted we settled on a very small but high quality list; to earn a place on her list a wine must be from Nelson, have either won a trophy at a wine show, been awarded a gold medal at a wine show or five stars by a recognised wine writer meaning customers can rely on the quality of the wines just as they can rely on the quality of the food at the Suter café.
I asked Kallil to tell me two or three of her favourite dishes and she told me with a huge smile and laugh “I love it all of course but our breakfasts are proving really popular, especially the creamy masala mushrooms, then for lunch the Suter nourish bowls consisting of either seared lamb, free-range chicken or, roasted salmon with choice of salads is very popular and of course our chowder is memorable, but it doesn’t really matter what I think, what the customers love is the most important thing.
“We are very aware of the iconic nature of the gallery and really want the cafe to enhance the gallery experience by taking food and hospitality to new levels with care and attention to everything and everyone, and of course every café has to have great coffee, coffee makes the world go around.”
Finally, Kallil’s recipe for success? “Bloody hard work, consistency, of product and service and most importantly being on hand, you can’t run a successful café from home, you need to be there.”
The Suter Café is opening seven days a week from 8am until 4.30pm but they like to close on public holidays so staff get a day a day off and if you want to go to one of her February gigs, which will be limited to 100 people per show, tickets will be available from cafe in the new year.