Words Denise Irvine, Images Ashlee DeCaires
Ryan and Alex Burke may have felt the weight of hospitality history when they bought Red Kitchen Café & Store in Te Awamutu in June.
It is a local institution, on the sunny side of Mahoe Street, spacious and friendly, the place where you’re guaranteed good coffee and food and a spot of shopping for comestibles and homewares on the side.
“People know and love it and they have expectations of how things should be,” says Ryan, as the eatery hums with people on this Tuesday morning: there are groups of friends having brunch, or coffee and carrot cake, chatting to staff, or loading up with takeout meals from the freezer.
It’s business as usual at Red Kitchen, founded in 2010 by Te Awamutu hospo couple Megan and Mat Priscott, who earned a reputation for their café that extends way beyond their town. Now they’ve sold to another hospo pair, although Megan and Mat have retained Red Kitchen HQ, their commercial kitchen and catering side.
Ryan and Alex’s message to café customers from the beginning is that it is truly business as usual. They love what they’ve bought. “It’s got such a good name,” says Ryan. And they’ve made minimal changes, taking the line that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. “It is amazing as it is,” says Alex.
Ryan says they’ve had customers say to them, “I hope you’re not going to change the coffee beans [Supreme]. So, no, we love Supreme too, we’re not going to do that.”
Ryan and Alex both have long hospitality experience. Ryan is originally from Hamilton. He did his chef’s training in Christchurch and has worked in kitchens in both cities. He was earlier the co-owner of Mizzoni Pizza in Hamilton, and he and Alex met when she was restaurant manager at the former Agenda Restaurant and Bar in Victoria Street. Nowadays, they have three young children as well as Red Kitchen.
“Ryan and I are a team,” says Alex. “This is the first big thing we’ve done together and we work where our strengths lie.” She laughs and says, “We’re not completely sick of each other.”
Alex has also been in retail, so she’s looking after that side of things – the homewares and pantry lines at Red Kitchen – and Ryan is on business management and menu planning.
They both say they’ve got great staff members who have stayed loyal to the café and have made the transition easy for them. “We couldn’t have done it without them,” says Ryan. Some, like head barista Chantelle Sanderson, have had long service. She’s been working the café’s espresso machine for seven years, and knows exactly how her regulars like their coffee.
At Red Kitchen, you choose your food from the menu, or from the cabinet, which is abundant with freshly made savoury and sweet food. One of the best displays in the industry. Cabinet meals, and baking and savoury items continue to be made by the Priscotts’ team at Red Kitchen HQ. The sandwiches, baps and buns are made in the café, along with everything on the breakfast and lunch menus.
Some recent menu additions include Ali’s French Toast (named for chef Alize), a sweet mix of brioche loaf dipped in cinnamon egg, served with caramelised banana and whipped cream. Another new dish, RK Eggs, has scrambled eggs with Clevedon buffalo cheese, drizzled with truffle oil; and Crumpet Eggs Benny adds a toasted crumpet base to the traditional benny to soak up the eggs and hollandaise. The Square Sausage Cheeseburger uses a pressed ‘square sausage’ from the neighbouring Expleo Butchery, plated with a Volare bun, Aldersons pickles, Al Brown mustard and kasundi ketchup.
Ryan says a number of dishes are locked into the menu by customer demand, among them the long-term Lemongrass & Chicken Turmeric Bowl and the big Workman’s Breaky. “They are stayers.”
Red Kitchen’s retail pantry has a collection of imported and New Zealand-made condiments and some of these also make their way onto the café menu. The spicy Belazu products, from the UK, include an apricot harissa paste that has been a perfect flavour boost for a chicken pasta special. Ryan’s own range of rubs and spice blends, marketed as The Rub Club, is also being put to good use. He developed The Rub Club products as a side-hustle during the Covid lockdown and they pair nicely with meats and roast vegetables.
He and Alex say their pantry section has “all the things you can’t buy at the supermarket”, along with the handy freezer meals from Red Kitchen HQ. The homewares area has kitchen treasures such as Shun Knives, Robert Gordon pottery, Le Creuset wares, robust wooden chopping boards, a selection of up-to-the-minute cookbooks, and more.
Alex’s aim in the future is to stock more locally made products and she is working on this. “We’d like to support other small Waikato businesses.”
Ryan has joined the Te Awamutu Chamber of Commerce to extend their contacts in town. They’re getting lots of positive feedback from customers, and the regulars are continuing to come in.
“It’s a really good place,” says Alex.
Red Kitchen Cafe & Store
69 Mahoe Street, Te Awamutu