I have unusual criteria when sorting out what cafe I’ll go to. Most people are attracted by food and ambience. I’m drawn first by the name. In New Plymouth recently, this method proved taxing. There were so many enticing sounding cafe names – Elixir, Chaos, Lush, Botanix, Three Pillars, The Debt – and so the choice wasn’t easy. But most appealing was ‘The Federal Store’, a cafe that is a little out of the town centre on Devon Street in Strandon. The name conjured up old-time, no-frills hospitality and comfort. It turned out to be exceptional, a character cafe that has been beloved by loyal locals and travellers in-the-know for the past eight years.
Owners and business partners Jeremy Burton and Susan Burton-Welsh reckon the recipe for a successful cafe is simple; a good environment and great food served by real people.
The exterior of The Federal Store is unembellished, in keeping with its name, but inside thoughtful décor has created a casual ambience that is slightly chaotic yet visually fascinating. A large retro advertisement for Tip Top ice cream dominates one wall. Others are lined with old weatherboards and hung with humorous signage and vintage memorabilia. Tables are old-style wooden or Formica. The ceiling is decked with bunting, lighting is subtly coloured and the staff wear spotted aprons and headbands. It’s the sort of place where anyone from newborn babies to centenarians can be equally at home. It took me back to the 1950s.
“We’ve created a sensory journey,” said Susan, “with visual elements, taste, lighting, subdued music and the aromas wafting from the kitchen.”
It seems there is a legion of ‘Fed fans’ in New Plymouth. And not surprisingly. All the food at the cafe is made on site. The ingredients are sourced locally as much as possible and classic and wholesome dishes make up the menu. There was a wide variety. I had trouble choosing between bubble and squeak, a cheese and bacon burger, savoury French toast and egg-filled tortillas called huevos rancheros. The portions were generous and after my hunger-busting burger, I had no appetite left for any of the enticing baked goods in the cabinet. I still regret the luscious-looking custard square I had to leave behind.
To add confusion, anyone looking for a cafe in New Plymouth will come across one in Westown called Little Fed. Some years after The Federal Store opened its doors, Susan and Jeremy developed this groovy miniature version, which rapidly became popular. They sold it four years ago and two years later their attention turned to a building across the road from The Federal Store that had been a home cookery venue for the past 60 years and was now vacant. They leased it and developed a food outlet called the Federal Bakehouse, which offers classy takeaway food for people on the move.
I’d just had lunch and could only gaze at the amazing array of mouth-watering temptations – the wholesome sandwiches, pies, sausage rolls, salads, sweets, biscuits, slices and most tempting of all, fat, sugardusted doughnuts filled with custard and raspberry jam.
Coffee to go is also served and if there is one single item that makes The Federal Store and the bakehouse stand out, it’s the coffee. Jeremy has been a barista for over 15 years and greatly expanded his appreciation of the elixir when he spent five years as factory manager and barista trainer for one of New Zealand’s most notable coffee personalities, the ebullient Geo Marsland of Havana Coffee Works in Wellington. So it’s no wonder he is choosy when it comes to employing baristas and fanatical about the care of his machines.
“Like thoroughbred racehorses, coffee machines have to be finely tuned if you want them to produce great coffee,” said Susan. “Jeremy has also used his skills to work with Ozone coffee roasters in New Plymouth to create his signature blend called ‘Fed’.”
I’m a discerning java junky and I can vouch for the smooth, rich, creamy cup of Fed that came to my table. I’ll not be driving down New Plymouth’s Devon Street again without stopping for a repeat and it’s unlikely I will resist one of those dreamy doughnuts to enhance the experience.