Ritsa Nichols from Elaia Cafe and Restaurant sat with us to speak about her hospitality journey and the history of Elaia in Launceston.
I was born in Hobart, I’m a Hobart girl! I moved up to Launceston in the early 90s to work with my husband in what was then a health food store. I first walked in the shop, walked out, looked up and down the street and thought “Oh crap, what have I done? I’m going to walk back to Hobart!”.
There was almost nothing here, and I didn’t know what we were going to do. We decided to create something, what else could you possibly do? We started out selling health foods and food in bulk amounts, then slowly converted into a deli with imported meats and cheese. We were pretty much one of the only places in town where you could eat out.
Around ‘93, after my husband and I got married, people started wanting cafe style food - sandwiches, rolls and the like. We catered to them just because they asked for it.
We did a bit of re-jigging. We cleared some space for tables and chairs, and got a coffee machine to go with the kind of salad bar we were doing.
Neither of us had any hospitality experience, but that didn’t worry or phase me. Back then it was easy to open something up even if you didn’t have experience. We were in our thirties. We were old enough and had the capital, but we didn’t have kids to worry about or anything.
We simply adapted to the demand. Some customers started saying “we can’t wait for you to open a cafe”. That sounded a bit more upmarket than what we were doing to the side of the deli.
Every other place in town was called something like “The Star Bar”, or “O’Keefes”. Elaia was a bit foreign, it wasn’t easy for people to pronounce.
Naming aside, we got our chef, and had our opening day. Our first customer wanted an iced chocolate, and we had a 16 year old girl who didn’t know how to make an iced chocolate at the counter. The place was jammed, everyone was anticipating the opening and it was super busy.
It wasn’t long before people started saying “Why don’t you get rid of those bins, and make more space for the customers?”. And it was really hard running both businesses. It was a nightmare having two lots of staff, so we got rid of the deli and ran with the cafe from there.
We saw other businesses in town get sold and bought by new management. That showed us that you can buy a brand, the location, the staff, but it’s just not the same without the right people and culture. You can train almost anyone to do almost anything, but it’s really important to get people who fit in with the culture.
Learning people management in hospitality was something really difficult. And the culture was very different back then, with chefs yelling, and being very aggressive. Some team members were in sync with what we were doing, but some weren’t.
After a while we opened up another location in the Quadrant Mall, which we had for 7 years.
We were young and silly enough to do it. We just thought that’s what it was supposed to be like. Back then, we were always exhausted or under stress. If we weren’t feeling that way we felt like we weren’t working hard enough.
We were delusional and a little bit naive and overly ambitious trying to run 2 locations. When we sold it, we’d just managed to turn it around.
I needed to take a step back and look at it as a business manager and not just Ritsa on the floor. Then customers would always come in and say “Where’s Ritsa, where’s Ritsa?”. There was too much for me to take care of to run it professionally. By the time we sold, it was doing so well we weren’t sure if we wanted to sell any more.
In the end we decided to sell, because having the one location and not working nights would be so much better for us and the kids. Sticking with the two locations would be more boring for us too.
We started creating the one cafe as an eating destination. We had to go through a bit of a process with the Council to get permission to open for dinner. Same thing happened with outside dining. We were threatened with a fine for having chairs and tables outside before the Council introduced licenses for outside dining.
What I love is the people, the customers. It’s the interaction and the engagement, seeing them walk in, look like they might be a pain in the ass, but by the end of it they’re hugging me. I like creating relationships with customers. Some times people come in and say “You’re still here!”, and I say “I still am!”.
One of my biggest joys is taking in new staff, training them, having them hate me, but imparting knowledge and skills, and ending up as friends in the end. I do it for the people. I like interacting with the customers and working with the younger generation and empowering them and training them. And I don’t know what else I’d do if I wasn’t here.