AT four o’clock each morning, Ruth Clarke will be found in the cosy quietness of the kitchen in her Kopeopeo cafe.
She will be baking, planning, preparing for six o’clock when she will open the café doors which will close again at 3.30.
She won’t get home until five, but despite the hours, gruelling by any standard, Ruth has no complaints.
“I love it all,” she says, “including those early hours before I open.
“I get so much done, and you’d be surprised how many people are out and about heading to work at that time too.”
Clearly, Ruth is cut out for the job. Running Ruth’s Kitchen for more than two decades now, she says she enjoys it as much today as she did when she first opened.
Last month marked the 21st anniversary of Ruth’s Kitchen, the immaculate booth-style café that has become something of an institution in Kope, long-hailed for its down-to-earth cooking, homely environment, and its popular catering service.
“A kitchen away from home,” Ruth says. But there was little fanfare for the occasion, with the day for Ruth, spent much like all the others. Looking after her customers and keeping the good food coming.
Ruth knows her diners well. Owning the café in the same location for more than two decades means regulars are sometimes second generations of diners that began walking through the doors when Ruth’s Kitchen first opened.
They know the ropes, she says, they know the menu well and they know what they like, with many of them having been dining at Ruth’s Kitchen for as long as Ruth can remember.
“It’s lovely,” she says.
“I really do get to know them, and they get to know me too,” with many of her regulars quick to clear the tables and wipe them down if they see that Ruth is busy.
“They know when I’m really busy and they know where the cloths are,” she smiles.
It’s the kind of family environment engendered by the café, homely and inviting, Ruth’s grandmother’s china displayed on the wall behind the counter.
Ruth opened the café in 1997, long after she’d developed the love of “feeding people”.
Growing up on a farm, she says she’d cooked from an early age, cooking dinner by the age of 10 and filling the “biccie tins” during the weekends. “I always enjoyed it, and when you live on a farm you learn early how to feed people because there’s always a need for it”.
She says it was later, by then working in the office of an engineering company, that the catering business that ultimately led to Ruth’s Kitchen, first developed.
Having begun “doing a bit of catering here and there”, Ruth says her workplace Christmas function was coming up and needing to cater for 150 people, Ruth asked if she could do it.
The successful event accelerated everything. “I have never advertised,” she says, but by word of mouth, news of Ruth’s catering ability spread, and her business began to grow, keeping on growing until eventually, she says authorities advised her she could no longer run it from home. When a former cafe came up for sale, Ruth says, she jumped at it.
Ruth and husband Mike had three children at the time, the youngest just 18 months old (all of whom have worked at the cafe over the years, the youngest, still working there today).
“I’m not sure how we did it when I look back,” she laughs. “If I had catering on, I’d come in at night and bring the youngest with me, and Mike would have the others at home”. (As with Ruth’s regular diners, the long list of local businesses and organisations she caters for, have, in many cases, been clients for 20 years).
Two decades on, Ruth agrees that Ruth’s Kitchen has gathered a lot of history. She has shared both celebration, and grief with her customers, most recently in the case of an older couple who have dined at Ruth’s Kitchen together for years. Only recently, one of them died.
“They shared the same wedding anniversary as me and Mike, so we always marked the occasion with something”. When the woman came in to eat recently, the first time without her husband, “it was very sad,” Ruth says.
There has also been a host of incidents over the years she’d rather not have had; a car that came through the cafe’s front window, intruders that entered the cafe way back before she installed security, being interrupted by Ruth on one occasion, and on another, having vacated, but having “cooked themselves a big feed and helped themselves to my baking,” she says.
She’s chased people who’ve stolen from her up he main street in Kope, “and caught them”, and had her fair share of domestics in the café as well.
“I always feel very safe though,” Ruth says. “The butchery boys are next door and they always know when I’m here and watch out for me”.
And does Ruth ever tire of her early morning rise? No, she says. “If I ever start waking and thinking oh no, I’ve got to get up for work, I’ll know it’s time for change. But that has happened yet. I’m enjoying it as much as I ever did.”
It appears Ruth’s Kitchen customers share the same sentiment. A suggestion box sitting in Ruth’s Kitchen attracts one comment more than anything else. “Most of the suggestions say the same thing,” she says. “Don’t change anything.”
By Lorraine Wilson