Little & Friday's Kim Evans: Leaving her husband helped start a cafe empire

By Greg Bruce

Her Little & Friday cafe empire turns over $5 million a year now, but as Kim Evans tells Greg Bruce, it wasn’t always smooth sailing.

Kim Evans' husband was at their Brisbane home watching the NRL grand final when she decided to leave him. At the time, she was in the same house, giving birth to their second child.

They had been married four years earlier and, almost from the start, Evans had been desperately unhappy in the relationship. She had made her first serious attempt to leave nearly a year before but, when she discovered she was pregnant, she felt obliged to go back.

But then, at home and in labour, her husband still in front of the live rugby league telecast, her contractions stopped, and she started to worry.

"The midwife said to me ... 'Go into the corner of a room quietly by yourself and you communicate with that baby and you work it out with that baby that the baby's got to come now, that [you've] got to do it together.' Don't worry about anyone else around you. You can do it."

Evans went into the corner and gave birth by herself, and that experience, born from the misery of the years that had preceded it, completely changed her life.

She says: "I remember at the time, thinking, 'Okay I'm going to do it,' and I went and did it and it was the most empowering moment for me - 'If I can do this, I can do anything.'"

Over the next few weeks, she tricked her husband into thinking she was going back to Auckland to visit her parents, so she could get him to sign their new baby's passport, quietly packed up her stuff and walked away from that life, to do anything.

She felt sorry for him afterwards. She says she believes he was severely depressed but he wasn't prepared to acknowledge it and he was never diagnosed.

She has never cut him off from the children, who are now both adults. She wanted them to have a relationship with their father and, in the early years, would take them back to Brisbane, sometimes twice a year, so they could spend time with him.

"I was at home and I just kept saying [to him], 'You know you can come and live in New Zealand, you can come here, I'm not taking your kids away from you. If you love us that much you can follow us.' But he wouldn't."

She says there was a lack of financial support.

"I was angry about that," she says, "but that's why I started the business, my first
business. It was like, 'I don't want to be angry any more. I don't want to be angry, I'm going to take command of my life, I'm going to start a business, going to become financially independent and not look to him to help support the kids any more'."

That business was called Ice-It, a cake shop in Devonport. The children would sleep under the counter while she baked, or she would put a mattress in her stationwagon, running an extension cord out to the car, where they would watch DVDs while she worked.

The cake shop turned into a thriving cafe, but she was no good at running it. "I think staff had their fingers in the till and I had my fingers in the brown paper bag at the end of the day, you know. The numbers didn't stack up." She walked away, after five years, about $12,000 in debt.

Kim Evans. Photo / Nick Reed
Kim Evans. Photo / Nick Reed

Debt collectors started coming to her door. Her kids freaked out. She started selling fudge pyramids at a market in Devonport and eventually paid off the money, then borrowed $2000 and opened another cafe, in Belmont.

The idea for the new cafe had come when, under pressure from a friend who had asked what she wanted from life, she had blurted, "I want to start an ethical food business." The friend made her write it down, as a goal.

"I said I can't do that, I've got two kids and I've got all these debts and I've got no money, that's just ridiculous."

Two years later, she was rolling pastry in her new cafe, called Little & Friday, with a queue out the door and the knowledge that she'd achieved her goal. Several years later, her business employs more than 70 staff, and turns over $5 million a year, with Little & Friday cafes now in Ponsonby and Newmarket.

It's too big now, she says. She wishes she'd stopped at two cafes, but she didn't. People offered her opportunities and she kept saying yes.

"You get hooked into that, and I did get a little bit hooked into that, thinking getting bigger is better, and it was hard to hold on to what I believed in when I got bigger."

The stress of it and her inability to deal effectively with it has taken her to the edge. "I nearly broke," she says. "There were a few Gordon Ramsay moments."

It's only in the last couple of months, she says, that she feels like she's getting things back in order. "I wasn't cooking food any more, there was no joy. I was just dealing with drama, putting out fires. Then I learned you've got to delegate, get these sergeants up and they deal with that."

If the costs of running a hospitality business can be high, the rewards are not necessarily all that great, either. It's a notoriously difficult way in which to make money and it's particularly hard to make money when you hold yourself to expensive ethical standards, as Little & Friday does. Evans says the thousands of free-range eggs used in her cafes
every week cost 33c each, whereas battery-farmed eggs would cost 13c.

Now 53, Evans has a house on Waiheke, but she only bought it after coming into some money following the death of her parents. Much of the time she doesn't stay there anyway, instead sleeping in the ramshackle, semi-organised place out the back of the Belmont cafe, which also serves as the business' office and her daughter's ceramics studio. She might have stepped back from her previous position of omnipotence, but she's still in the business up to her eyeballs.

"I love it," she says. "I absolutely love it. I love it when it's working well." Asked how often that happens, she says, "It happens. It's like a squiggly line. It's like any relationship, isn't it?"

"I pinch myself because you get a little bit focused on the day-to-day running of it and the numbers and the GST - 'Shit, how am I going to come up with 50 grand for the GST bill?' - and you forget actually what you've created. So you have to stop sometimes and smell the roses."

She is not stopping. She's just published her third book, Little & Friday Every Meal, this one co-authored with Little & Friday chef Sophie Beck. Unlike the first two books, which were dominated by the opulent pastries and sugar-based treats that launched Little & Friday into the city's gastro-consciousness, this one is more about everyday food: salads, slaws, chicken, lamb, smoked fish pie. It reflects the direction she is thinking about taking the business next: making a space for the community to gather that is not just a cafe but somewhere to enjoy and eat good food from the first meal of the day to the last.

Given the energy of its leader, it's no real surprise that the empire of Little & Friday is not just staying in the same place, not just continuing on as a small bundle of cafes considered by leading food writers to be among the city's best.

Evans' co-author and Little & Friday chef Sophie Beck describes her boss as a "very strong woman, strong minded", with "a hell of a lot of determination". She says: "I've never met anyone like her.".

Gesturing at the long kitchen that abuts Little & Friday's Belmont cafe, where Beck is nominally in charge, she says, "Just to give you one example. You can come in here one week and the kitchen looks like this. Next week, it will be all moved around."

That's not just Evans she says, but it's obviously her influence.

"You're always trying to make it better," Beck says. "It's never like, 'That's enough, that's it and we're sticking to that.' Never. It's always like, 'What way's better? What can we do to make that more efficient?'"

It's now more than 20 years since Evans left her husband. Although the relationship had been so bad that she would sometimes pray he would go out and not return home, she says she struggled for a long time with the thought that leaving was the wrong thing to do.

"It took a while, probably 20 years," she says, laughing. "You know, you feel quite guilty for a long time."

While she had still been in the relationship, a friend had recommended she see a counsellor, a Catholic nun, whose advice was that she should try to be a better wife - have her husband's slippers at the door and his dinner ready when he arrived home.

It was 10 years after she had walked away from her husband that she first saw a proper counsellor, and she says that was the point where she felt the anger she felt start to disappear.

"I've been through some bad patches but most of the time I'm content with what I've got. And I've never remarried ... so obviously there are still issues there because I'm not interested in going there again, but yeah, I'm pretty content with my lot because I suppose I know how bad it can get."

"I'm a firm believer in that, if you hang on to the shit that happened in the past, you know you're not going to move forward."

She doesn't think about her relationship with her ex-husband anymore, but not thinking about it is different from not being affected by it. What effect did that marriage have on her life? Evans understands.

"We all go through stuff," Evans says. "If people could understand that more. When you work in hospo, there's some arseholes who come in and you've just got to think, 'What's happening in their life for them to be an arsehole to us?'

"I keep telling my staff that. 'It's not you; don't take it on. They've got stuff happening in their life that's making them pass the shit on.'"

- Canvas

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