Getting It Right:

Ballantynes’ ‘JB’s Café’ . . . Far From Your Average ‘Department Store Caf’

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At centre, Katy Ellis, JB’s manager. At right, Shannon Bolland.
Background left, Brogan Bingham.

If anyone told me I’d be waxing lyrical about a department store cafeteria, I’d have assumed I must be heading for a severe drought of story ideas. But I’m not . . . I’ve an inbox brimming full of potential coverage suggestions.

Today, the one that’s leading the queue has really taken me from left field:  Timaru department store, Ballantynes, and its awesome in-house café, “JB’s”.

I’ve always thought of department store “cafs” (particularly 162-year-old institutions in regional towns) as the domain of pensioners, cheese toasties and salad rolls . . . before today.

How wrong can one be?

Very wrong, as it turns out.

Ballantyne’s “JB’s” is a treat! And especially so for a health-conscious vegetarian who, regardless of her quite strict dietary preferences, still appreciates tasty, nicely-presented food – and having a wide variety of it to choose from. I was more than impressed to find that vegetarian options (some of the nicest I’ve seen for a while) hold equal balance of power in JB’s tantalising and constantly refreshed food array. Not that carnivores are exactly starved for choice, either. It’s the widest variety of delicioso-looking dishes I recall seeing in any department store eatery.

Traditional Meets Contemporary

So I got to asking a few questions of the super-friendly staff. Here’s what I learned:

All JB’s mouth-watering fare is cooked, baked, or sliced and tossed fresh, on-site, each day by the two resident chefs, Michelle Olsen (who has owned her own café, but prefers producing foodie creations to the administrative tedium of managing a food outlet), and Janine Rutland, whose innovative talents are regularly called on by the cafes in the other two Ballantynes stores (both in Christchurch).

“Family favourites” and other traditional Kiwi fare (think tan square with a twist and photo-worthy home-baked cheesecake) are Michelle’s passion and keep the older segments of Ballantynes’ customer demographic in their comfort zones, whilst Janine’s penchant for innovation delights those shoppers who consider themselves at the culinary cutting edge. It’s a highly complementary partnership.

But wait. There’s more.

Ever been to one of those in-house caf-type places where the staff look as though they’re enjoying their job about as much as if they were working in a prison servery? Now swing to the opposite end of the “job satisfaction” spectrum. It’s been a long while since I’ve seen an eatery’s staff so blatantly enjoying their work. I kid you not.

A Slice of History

Shannon Bolland, “café assistant”, says:

“Ballantynes is a slice of history in this town. I like working for the company because even though it’s a big business, it’s run like a family ‘home town’ enterprise.

“Our customers are very loyal. Many of the older customers make a day of it, when they come in. They shop here, and they eat here. We’ll see them and know what they like, and often we’ll start making up their meal as soon as we spot them. We know most of that part of our customer base by name.

“It’s that sort of working environment that makes it so much more than a job. I know it sounds like a cliché, but it’s true. It’s a special relationship we have with our customers.

“And it’s the other ways we recognise our customers, too, that keeps people coming back all the time. Like, we welcome suggestions for new dishes, and the chefs are always trying something that someone has asked for. If enough customers like it, that dish will show up regularly in the display. People appreciate the fact that the chefs are so keen to come out with new things that the customers themselves have mentioned they like.

“So it’s a really special place to work; it’s warm, and it’s friendly, and it’s rewarding.”

And it shows.

So tasty and beautifully presented food, outstanding variety with at least 50% vegetarian options (and even several vegan), made fresh and on-site daily . . . all served by friendly, attentive staff.

Works for me.

Diane Tahere, Ballantynes' homewares department.

Diane Tahere, Ballantynes’ homewares department. Inset:  Shannon Bolland, JB’s Cafe.

And . . . still there’s more.

I’d bought a gift in the homewares department, and (since it was large) I’d left it there for convenience’s sake, while I grazed contentedly at JB’s. When I returned, I found it carefully gift-wrapped, bagged up and ready to go.

Does it get much better?

Ballantynes. A tradition worth keeping.

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