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Nelson Historical Society Journal, Volume 7, Issue 1, 2009

Two Iconic Nelson Cafés

page 65

Two Iconic Nelson Cafés

Open any Nelson travel guide and certain aspects of "Mention 'The Chez' and people's faces will light up with fond memories of this famous Nelson coffee house". our community will shine out at you. These are the unique places and occasions that attract tourists to Nelson. Cafés in Nelson are a familiar sight, scattered along the main street and those adjoining it. There are a select few eating places, however, that have made Nelson inimitable. The cafés where hectic, stressed, modern reality is evaporated and solace, comfort and delight are discovered. Chez Eelco and Morrison Street Café are true icons of Nelson.

The dictionary definition of 'icon' is a sacred painting or mosaic. Although not physically 'paintings', both Morrison Street Café and Chez Eelco are certainly 'sacred' identities when painting a picture of Nelson's attributes and its history.

Mention 'The Chez' and peoples' faces will light up with fond memories of this famous Nelson coffee house. The founder Eelco Boswijk in his colourful waistcoat, the conversations that were held there and the way in which Chez Eelco had such an impact on many peoples' lives. The name Morrison Street Café comes up when recommendations are being given to visitors for places to go. Consistently on the list of best cafés in New Zealand, it is a place where you can expect great coffee and service of a high standard. Two cafés, two icons. One is history, one is present. Both are unique. Yet similarities are evident when comparing them…

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Eelco Boswijk's Chez

In 1951 at age twenty, Boswijk arrived in Auckland from Holland. After having worked at numerous places in Auckland, Boswijk moved to Nelson to make his dream of owning a coffee house reality. At first, with only one bicycle to his name, and not many people who knew him, he could not borrow any money from the bank. Nevertheless, he believed Nelson had a "good feel about it" and was not worried about what other people thought: "you do your own thing".1

Through the help of friends in Auckland he raised enough money to open his coffee house – Chez Eelco, the first café in Nelson in September 1961. His vision was for it to provide the warmth of the third-class waiting room of a Dutch railway station that he had enjoyed as a schoolboy. He waited for trains in Holland during his school years in the third class waiting rooms. Waiting for trains, he had huddled together with 150 others around a stove in the middle of the room. Purchasing something had not been expected, unlike in the first and second class waiting rooms. "We just waited. And that was the idea of the coffee house".

Boswijk's philosophy of Chez Eelco was simple and direct: "It is a place where people can sit and wait without needing to buy something but fulfilling the need of being somewhere to pass the time".1

When Chez Eelco first opened, Nelson barely knew what had hit it. The first place to stay open at all hours, Friday nights would see 400–500 individuals standing around outside. "They couldn't get in because it was full and we couldn't move them because there wasn't anywhere else to go".2

Nelson College for Girls students were strictly told by the Lady Principal that Chez Eelco was out of bounds. Teenagers ignored this and Friday nights at the Chez Eelco became adolescent bonding rituals. It brought a sophistication that had not previously been available, and became the "vibrant place to be".3 Chez Eelco became known throughout New Zealand and internationally.

Customer service was very important to Boswijk, with happy staff equalling happy customers for him. "There was a waiter who was the smiling one, the helpful one. I became him".4 He encouraged his guests to just be there: "Anyone could sit here without feeling they had to buy anything – they could read a paper or play chess".5

In addition to his charming host manner, Boswijk's love for the arts also made Chez Eelco special. In its second year, a gallery room was added at the rear of the café. Jane Evans and Sally Burton, well known artists of Nelson, were discovered page 67at Chez Eelco when they were given the opportunity to showcase their first exhibitions. When Suzie Moncreiff, founder of the Wearable Art Awards, put forward her idea, it was Boswijk who recognised its potential and granted her first sponsorship of $1,000. Today he is a Patron of this very spectacular New Zealand event.

Eelco Boswijk, 1961– the year The Chez opened.Photographer unknown.

Eelco Boswijk, 1961
– the year The Chez opened.
Photographer unknown.

In 1979 Boswijk introduced another first in the café scene to Nelson – outdoor seating. This was not an easy task to accomplish, with Nelson City Council believing customers would be affected by traffic fumes, bird droppings would contaminate the food and diners might be hit by vehicles. After much debate, Boswijk was granted a three month trial period and had to pay for the parking spaces he used. Customers were enthusiastic about the outdoor seating, where they were shielded from the road by rope barriers and pot plants. They did not mind sitting outside" as long as the cars don't come too close".6

Kay Field.Rosanna Russell photo.

Kay Field.
Rosanna Russell photo.

Chez Eelco helped to put Nelson on the map. Whether you wanted coffee, a hamburger, the famous mussel chowder or just to hear the Duo Jackson on a Sunday night, from the time it opened until 2004, when it was sold, Eelco Boswijk's coffee house was "the place to be".7 With personal problems resolved, philosophies debated and marriage proposals made and accepted within its walls, the Chez Eelco became an iconic Nelson café.

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Morrison Street Cafe

Morrison Street Café is another true Nelson café. A place where tasty food, satisfying coffee and out-standing service are always apparent. For eleven years, Morrison Street Café has been an iconic café of Nelson. When Kay Field first opened Morrison Street, on October 31, 1997, the public was not entirely convinced that another café would benefit Nelson. Field recalls

– "When we first opened, people said Nelson doesn't need another café".8 However she believed that coffee in Nelson was poor: "There wasn't anywhere producing really good coffee, the sort you get in bigger cities".

Field opened Morrison Street Café, in small premises in Morrison Street, as the base for a catering business. It was small and family orientated, with her mother and sister-in-law helping out. Her desire to produce quality coffee saw the café business taking over. When her brother, Scott Field, wanted to expand his Mitre 10 business to include a garden centre café, Morrison Street Café moved to its existing location, one year after it had opened. Field's vision was for a friendly, casual, place with good food and a strong emphasis on coffee. The café won the New Zealand Best Café Award in Nelson for the first time in 1999 and has been the recipient of a steady stream of awards over the years.

What makes this particular café an icon and can its triumphs be connected with those of Chez Eelco? In common with Boswijk, Field believes that a fine atmosphere is essential. The café is cosy but has a city feel, with its sunny courtyard and spacious wooden interior. Then there is the strong team spirit among the staff. Manager Lawry Trewavas exclaims: "We all love working here. Everyone is equal and we all support each other. So if you've got happy staff it just creates a really positive environment".9

The menu at Morrison Street Café is another factor. There is something on the menu to entice anybody, with vegans and allergy-afflicted being well provided for. Its influences come from many parts of the world, with seasonal changes like the chicken and hummus wraps, or warm pancetta and artichoke salad keeping it fresh and exciting. Yet the continuing favourite – bacon and eggs with designer hollandaise sauce and pesto remains on the menu.

The arts have also played a notable role in this icon, with well known artists and graduates displaying their work at Morrison Street Café. The café fully supports the local art that comes through, and a recent study by a visual student at Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology found that it was one of the best places for exhibiting art works, based on sales success.

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Field says different members of her family have influenced her, including her father's partner who has "always been great with food and knows how to make an occasion out of it".10 Then there is her partner, Robert Fanselow, co-owner of Harry's Bar and previous owner of The Cut Restaurant and Bar. Her great great grandfather had opened the Wilkins and Field hardware store on the site in 1880. The property was sold to Prime Retail Management in 2005, who developed the Fashion Island complex there. Field expanded her business in response to the sale. The vision for the Fashion Island complex was to create the atmosphere of a Parisian café, with Morrison Street Café "visually anchoring the site and providing open café seating on to the boulevard".

A significant element of Morrison Street Café's art of first-rate coffee making can be traced back to a former barista, Emma Markland Webster. She helped to put Morrison Street Café on the map when she won the New Zealand Barista of the Year in 2001 and followed that by achieving 5th place in the World Barista Champs in 2002.

Special Honours for Well Deserved Recipients

Chez Eelco and Morrison Street both conjure fascination and distinctiveness when the subject of true Nelson Icons is raised. Both Boswijk and Field had significant success at a time and place when influences such as theirs were unfamiliar. Boswijk received the Commemoration Medal and Certificate, signed by Queen Elizabeth the Second, in 1990. In the same year he was also honoured by Queen Beatrix of The Netherlands, who awarded him the Order of Orange-Nassau for his services to a Dutch community outside Holland. A bust of Boswijk has been placed near his former café to honour his contribution to the community.

Morrison Street has also received distinctive honours, having won the award for Best Café in the Nelson region for eight consecutive years. Markland Webster was New Zealand Barista of the Year two times in a row. This makes it the most awarded café in New Zealand.

Both cafes stand out as images of Nelson's history and individuality. In years to come, people will still yearn for the stylish ambience, exceptional coffee and tantalizing cuisine that is evident at Morrison Street; and no doubt would also like to recapture those nostalgic rendezvous at The Chez.

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1Manning, D. May 27, 2000. Eelco … The man his place. Nelson Mail. P15.
2Hundreds sign Eelco's birthday card. February 25, 1999. The Leader. P20.
3Farley, Sue (Ed.). 2006. Nelson Regional Guide Book – Art in its Own Place. Nelson Bays Arts Advocacy and Marketing Trust. P210.
4Hoby, K. December 31, 2005. Coffee Art a Special Blend. The Nelson Mail. P1.
5Moore, C. May 6 2000. Rich Aroma. http://web.ebsohost.com/ehost/delivery.
6A hint of Paris comes to Nelson. December 1, 1979. The Nelson Evening Mail.
7Moore, B. May 31, 2000. Farewell to a Nelson institution. The Nelson Mail.
8.Kay Field. Interview. Morrison Street Café, June 11, 2008.
9.Café racks up record ninth win. June 16, 2008. http://web.ebsohost.com.
10.Street smart café. August 15, 2006. P14.