Sunshine in my cuppa in Oakura

Barbara Olsen-Henderson rides to work on her bicycle and swaps vegetables for coffee. Olena Williams sat down with Barbara to hear about being a calendar girl, creating rehab programmes, and making dolls.

I meet with Barbara in her cafe situated in the surfers’ village of Oakura, Taranaki. It is cold and wet outside, but when I enter Lemonwood Eatery I am immediately warm.

Barbara is in the cafe in her bright yellow blouse and it looks like the sun ventured in for a cuppa. She greets me with her signature smile and offers a drink. I choose a deconstructed cup of coffee with almond milk. Fancy!

Lemonwood is not her first cafe. In 1996 she owned the Yellow Cafe in a New Plymouth mall. Then it was The Bach – a cafe, right by the water in the port area – where she started to offer gluten free, vegan and vegetarian food. And now Lemonwood – vegan, except for the milk in the coffee. She can ride to work by bicycle and she grows herbs and vegetables for the cafe in her garden.

Many years ago she invented a natural exchange with her local clientele: one kilo of produce – fruits or vegetables – for a cup of coffee. The most common offerings were zucchini, rhubarb, persimmons or any sort of fruit that does not last long. She also prefers to buy from locals. Organic Kaitake farmers are among her suppliers, but when they have an excess of some crops they just unload it at Barbara’s – for that famous coffee exchange.

Olena: When does your day start?
Barbara: Like any baker I get up around 5:30am. I make bread for the cafe and lots of people pop in just for the bread. I make a so-called slow dough. It is a sourdough with the naturally occurred fermentation, but it is not that sour. It takes longer than normal bread, but the taste is quite different from any other breads on the market.

I saw a calendar with you on the cover. You were perfectly nude and seemed very happy. The wording on the front page said: “Taranaki Business Women: feeling the fear and doing it anyway”. What was it fundraising for?
Every year we do a fundraiser for the Hospice and last year it was with that calendar. It was quite unusual to be a calendar girl. I approached some people and responses differed from “Yes, awesome” to “Are you crazy?”. Makeup, styling and photography people did such a professional job that we all looked quite good.

You all looked stunning!
My aim was to look decent.

We giggle for a while. Then it is time for the serious question.

I have heard that you introduced a special rehab program for your staff members, who suffer from addictions. Can you tell us more about it?
This was one of the things that came out of necessity.

One day I discovered that one of my chefs was using drugs. I was in shock. Then I came to the conclusion that it is quite a common thing among young chefs; they work in a high-stress environment with long hours, and addiction can creep in.

First of all, we did drug testing for all staff, then we offered the choice of leaving, or help with rehabilitation. Some resigned, some stayed. I know it is hard, there is no clear recipe for it. The addicted person needs to make their own decision to stop.

You are known for your famous newsletter, where you share your thoughts, struggles and achievements every month.  How did that start?
It started 23 years ago, well before social media and blogging. Originally it was handwritten, photocopied and mailed. People loved it. Some replied with handwritten letters. They sent me cards, kids drawings and thank-yous. It helped me to create real, meaningful relationships with my customers.

Now I use computer software to create the newsletter, but it is still in on paper. People can read it while waiting for their food and drinks.

I read your newsletter. I have noticed that schools or charities express gratitude to you quite often.
I have tried to help where I can. Especially for local people and events. Generosity keeps the spirit alive. And I like being generous.

You are a busy woman, how do you recharge your batteries?
I do gardening: grow my spinach, lettuce and lots of greens. Another hobby that keeps me happy – making dolls.

At the moment I am working on two rag dolls. They are mischievous kitchen rats, quite interesting characters.

My watch shows that we’ve spent more than an hour. I am full of coffee and sunshine. See you again, Barbara.

Words and photos by Olena Williams