Twenty-six years ago, when Birgit Meister came to New Zealand for a three-month holiday, she knew instantly she never wanted to go back to live in Austria.
But now, in a way, she feels her life as a general storekeeper in the Mangakāhia valley has brought her full circle.
She was a chef when she left Austria all those years ago, and is once again making her living mainly from food - selling it, making it, planning how to do more with it.
Meister admits that at this stage what she cooks at her Titoki General Store is limited to the likes of muffins, biscuits, burgers and fish and chips, other fast food takeaways and ''the dish of the day''.
Hopefully, come summer, there'll be a cafe attached to the old store which has served locals for more decades than most now remember. One way or another, Meister says, the general store is reawakening her passion for food.
She and her partner Nigel Draper bought the tired old store in February, closed it for a short while, gutted it and conjured up a new layout, new counters and a bright paint job to suit their broader vision for the place.
Draper has a fulltime job at Refining New Zealand and, with four part-time staff, Meister works long hours at the store. She surprised herself a little by buying a general store but feels — ''no question, absolutely 100 per cent'' — it was an opportunity just waiting to happen.
''I've lived in the area for 19 years, I've been a customer at this shop all that time. It's always piqued my imagination.''
Custom is steady, with locals the mainstay, but much also comes from through-traffic; literally hundreds of trucks passing each day, and motorists taking the middle road, now State Highway 13, from Whangārei and points south to Kaikohe.
Mangakāhia Rd through the wide, green valley to the scenic Twin Bridges gorge and on to Kaikohe isn't a well-known tourist route.
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''What I notice is tourists mostly stop to ask where they are,'' Meister says. ''Their Sat Navs give them the shortest route, say to the Bay of Islands, and they really think they are lost.''
Meister likes to sell as much locally grown produce as possible; the shelves are loaded with limes, vegetables, honey and other foods sourced from nearby. She also wants to "grow" a local market on the second Sunday of each month in the ample parking area where produce, art and other goods can be sold.
''Since I've had the shop I've noticed how much talent there is around here. I know local people travel to Whangārei and other markets. It could work the other way, too.''
One challenge Meister has become acutely aware of in six months at the store is the busy road with its 70 km/h speed limit through the tiny one shop-and-school settlement. The school and shop are directly across the road from each other, on a bend.
''Every day we see a near miss on the corner outside. It's quite surprising it's not 50 km/h or lower because of the school.''
Getting some everyday goods delivered is another challenge in running a store some distance from other retail facilities. Meister has to drive to the Maungatapere gas station where, rather than make the haul to Titoki, the delivery trucks drop off milk, including the popular organic milk Titoki customers ask for.
Without wholesalers delivering or even supplying smaller shops, stocking up requires regular trips to a Whangārei supermarket.
Some lessons have been learned about what to stock on the shelves and generally, for a foodie, Meister keeps it real.
''We do keep a few gourmet items. Some of them we'll probably end up eating ourselves. Ideally, we'd like to broaden the range but it has to depend on what people want.''
It's an eclectic range for a country store as it is - from chicken feed to feta cheese, water filters to chocolate wafers. Customers can drop off or collect their mail while picking up a burger for dinner. They can even sit on a corner bench seat to read their mail or look through the book exchange box while they wait for their takeaways, or eat them there too.
Nineteen years ago Meister moved from Kaukapakapa where she worked in a pub to Pakotai to milk cows, something the young chef in Austria never dreamed she might one day do.
A year later she moved to Titoki, 19km down the road, where she continued milking and working on farms, and eventually bought her own house.
Then some years later she met Draper, ''a keeper''.
Now she's a storekeeper in a Northland heartland farming community, a late-arriving pioneer of sorts, and perfectly at home.
''It's been an amazing journey, and it's onwards and upwards. The support we've had from the community since we bought the store and the sense we are a part of this community is very special.
''Money can't buy that feeling of satisfaction of doing something well and being appreciated for it.''