Jester House named Cafe of the Year

22:51, Dec 12 2013
Steve Richards and Judy van den Yssel-Richards
ALL IN JEST: Steve Richards and Judy van den Yssel-Richards, owners of the Jester House, celebrate being named South Island regional winner for Cafe of the Year.

Jester House winning the South Island regional title of Cafe of the Year is a "fantastic birthday present", says Steve Richards.

The celebrated Tasman cafe that Mr Richards and his wife Judy van den Yssel-Richards own and run opened its doors 22 years ago today, and the cafe was revealed as the South Island finalist for Cafe of the Year this week.

The award - and the possibility of taking the national title and the prize of a new Fiat 500S that is to be announced on December 4 - is also a "validation of how good we think we are," said Mr Richards.

But the award is ultimately a testament to the cafe's loyal customers who voted the cafe one of the 18 national finalists.

"So many of our customers have become part of our community of friends and they feel like they own it too," said Mr Richards.

He said that when the couple decided to rebuild the cafe in 2006, it could have been an opportunity to walk away and do something else but the sense that the cafe had become a part of so many other people's lives helped make the decision to continue an easy one.


"We realised it's not just ourselves. That's our whole business philosophy: it's not just about us, it's not just about the money, it's about the community, it's about the environment," said Mr Richards.

The 669 cafes that entered were narrowed down to 18 national finalists by 45,000 voters, with the six regional winners determined by Restaurant Association of New Zealand judges Mark Gregory and Kerry Tyack.

Ms Yssel-Richards said the process of entering the awards and having to be on top of their game for several weeks during which judges may have visited several times was a valuable process that forced them to evaluate how they operated.

"And if you think that every person who comes in might be a mystery judge, it gives an edge to the service philosophy we already have, which is that we try to be perfect every time," said Mr Richards.

As part of the competition, which is sponsored by Wattie's and Meadow Fresh, the couple had to create dishes that featured the sponsors' products. The results, a wild goat tagine with a corn and chickpea salsa and a Black Doris plum pie with cream, have proved popular and by using wild meat, the goat tagine is "turning a problem into a resource", said Mr Richards.

The food, drinks and service may be excellent but the tame eels, the giant chess board, the sculptures and whimsical touches dotted around the cafe's park-like grounds all serve to make Jester House a beloved Tasman institution.

"People talk about us as the jesters but we're not; we're just keeping the jester spirit alive," said Mr Richards.

As an example, Ms Yssel-Richards added, "a little girl came in the other day and said, ‘Oh it's just like the Queen's garden!' It's moments like that that make it fun."

And fun is the point: "That's the essence of life for us."