Inside Kiwi Café, there are bright yellow walls and kiwi-green walls. There are mismatched chairs, small tables and big tables; there is a coffee bar and a display case full of house-made sweets. There is character. There is warmth. Here, owner Lynda Flinn has been tapping into the people of Chester’s contrasting tastes for both comfort and adventure over the last 12 years. Prior to opening her doors on Pleasant Street in June 2004, she was a sought-after caterer in the community. Flinn grew up learning from-scratch baking at home, then worked her way around Europe as a private chef and completed technical culinary training in her native New Zealand before moving to Chester in 1989. Chatting with Flinn inside her colourful, warm and welcoming café, it’s apparent this eclectic background has moulded both the interior style and food offering. Hearing Flinn interact with customers, it’s easy to tell she readily connects with two types of people: those who love to talk to about good food and those who love to eat it.
Making food from scratch was an influential part of Flinn’s upbringing. “I grew up doing the baking every weekend, filling the tins was a big thing,” she says. “A lot of the baking [at the café] is New Zealand recipes, things I made as a child, from my grandma or mom.” People flock to Kiwi Café each morning for the warm, freshly-made scones and muffins. “Those just fly out of here, you’ve gotta come early.” Her cakes, pies and trays of squares are a go-to item for local residents when entertaining company.
As for the coffee? “We’ve had flat whites since day one,” says Flinn. A reflection of the café culture in New Zealand, she is serious about using quality coffee, properly trained staff and expertly made espresso drinks. Happy to support another family-run business, Flinn has bought her coffee from Halifax’s Java Blend since opening.
Inside the 50-seat café is something you might not expect to see in Chester: an exotic foods pantry. “I’d been living in Europe and I’d been cooking with all kinds of crazy stuff, and I couldn’t find it anywhere around Chester,” explains Flinn. After slowly building up her own collection of imported items at home, she says: “I decided there’s a lot of people around here that like to cook like me, too.” And so began the offering of items like Mackays marmalades from Scotland, honey from New Zealand, olives from Italy and an array of Southeast Asian spices. “We often have people calling in when they’re making Thai curry or something, and we have the stuff here.”
The café menu itself is a mix of very classic (and very satisfying) breakfast foods, sandwiches and wraps that are creative yet recognizable, along with salads, staples like fish cakes, plus a daily soup. In other words, crowd pleasing but not boring. During my visit, I get to try a couple of dishes. First up I tackle the B.L.A.T. Thought you couldn’t improve a B.L.T? Think again. Add avocado. This sandwich caught my eye, because funny enough, I saw it in cafés all over New Zealand during my travels there. I love this sandwich. It’s made on crusty white bread that’s grilled and buttered inside. The ingredients are sealed in with a generous slather of mayonnaise. Salty, crunchy and rich . . . you can’t go wrong.
“This is how I eat,” says Flinn when I ask her about the food philosophy that drives Kiwi Café. “I grew up that way. I grew up with a very large vegetable garden and fruit trees,” she adds. “I don’t eat any processed stuff. I like local, natural, made from scratch.” She tries to source locally as much as possible when the quality is good and the product can be bought consistently to keep up with demand. Most of her breads come from The LaHave Bakery, sausages from The Pork Shop and English muffins from Snair’s Golden Grain bakery. All of the other baked goods and sweets are made in-house daily.
The menu has also largely been shaped—or rather, maintained—by Kiwi Café customers. “There’s some tried-and-true things on that menu that I try to take off and put something new on, and people get upset,” says Flinn. Breakfast items are huge sellers (most are staples), so it’s not likely they’re going anywhere any time soon. You don’t mess with someone’s bacon and eggs. Flinn tries to refresh the menu about once a year, but with so many regular customers depending on their favourites, there’s not much wiggle room for big changes. “I had the tomato and Havarti sandwich off last year, and we’ve brought it back because we ended up just making it anyway.” To showcase what’s in season, she says: “We get to have some fun with the daily special.”
Next up for me is the ever-popular eggs Benedict, this version with smoked salmon from Comeau’s Sea Foods. The Snair’s English muffin is exceptional, toasted to perfection, crusty on the cut side, while maintaining a fluffy, buttery inside. It’s topped with smoked salmon, a perfect soft-poached egg, hollandaise sauce and fresh dill. A classic combination that I always enjoy. Flinn uses quality ingredients to let quintessential breakfast dishes shine—what I think is a reflection of her genuine, easy-going personality. There’s no need to mess around and complicate food that already tastes delicious if it’s done right.
Heading into its thirteenth summer, the café has long since woven its way into the fabric of everyday life in Chester. “I think we’re a pretty big part of the community,” says Flinn. “Someone called us the other day the ‘Starbucks of Chester,’” she laughs. For a village with a population of around 2,400, that’s a huge compliment. “We have people who come do their work here on their laptops, have meetings,” says Flinn. Her customer base is made up of many regulars, both from Chester and from other parts of the province. “I recognize people that come from the city, Bridgewater and the [Annapolis] Valley.”
Now gearing up for busy season in Chester, Flinn will soon double her staff and welcome back a number of summer students to work at the café. They’re ready, though. Over the years, Kiwi Café has become so consistently busy through the winter that staff are used to higher volumes all year. “It used to be dramatic, but it’s not really anymore,” says Flinn of the seasonal dip. Great winter business has allowed Flinn and her staff to stay on their toes, and for those warmer months, they need to be. “The population here in the summer can quadruple,” says Flinn. Between summer residents, tourists, sailors and special events, the community’s favourite place to eat becomes “totally crazy.” The peak of the season is Chester Race Week, Canada’s largest keel boat regatta, which happens annually in early August. “It’s really fun, but it’s really full-on for us; we probably do four to five hundred meals a day. For a little place, that’s busy.”
Flinn is very humble when speaking about what’s led to her success, both in earning the respect of the community and from her staff. She no longer works in the kitchen anymore, but focuses on running the business, while staying very in tune with all of her employees. “I have an awesome crew of staff. All locals. All of them feel a sense of ownership.” In a seasonal community like Chester, many hospitality operations are only open during high tourist season. Kiwi Cafe is open seven days a week from 8 am to 5 pm year-round, giving Flinn the advantage of employing full-time staff with dependable hours. “I have pretty high standards,” says Flinn. “Everyone knows that, and there’s usually no issues. That’s why we do so well, because we’re really consistent.” Hearing Flinn speak with her staff, it’s easy to tell they have a respectful and affectionate rapport. It’s obvious they work hard for Flinn because they care about both her and the café. Flinn tells me happily: “I just went on holiday for a month. Not many restaurant owners can do that.”
Learning about Flinn’s recent trip to Italy, I can see even more that she strives to keep things simple by simply doing them the right way. “I’m working on a pizza plan,” she tells me during our chat. Of course, Flinn had to learn how to make the best dough. “I took a really cool all-day course when I was in Rome. It was amazing,” she says. Flinn is hoping to open a couple nights a week this coming summer, and offer pizza.
Hearing Flinn speak about this new venture is refreshing; she’s finding ways to innovate at the café—to bring a closer-to-authentic Italian style pizza to the neighbourhood—something that doesn’t currently exist in Chester. It’s heartening to speak with a business owner who seems genuinely excited about her relationship with the customers. The anticipation of how they will react to the pizza speaks to Flinn’s desire to keep offering delicious, from scratch, made-with-love food. I’m guessing the community will continue to love her back for it.