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A slice of Dutch life at Hamilton's Zenders Cafe

Customers dropping into Zenders Cafe will simply feel gezellig – a convivial cosiness – which is just what the three sisters who built this business had in mind.

For anyone with Dutch heritage, walking into Zenders is like stepping into a time machine. Suddenly you’re a little kid again, wearing a hand-knitted jumper, visiting Oma and Opa with your parents.

There’s the carpet on the table, the framed cross-stitch pictures of windmills, Delft Blauw plates, wooden biscuit moulds hanging on the wall, and even a heavy wooden sideboard brought all the way from the Netherlands.

If my Oma were here, she might offer guests appeltaart (apple cake), tompouce (custard square with pink icing), stroopwafels (waffle with caramel filling) and filter coffee with koffiemelk. So that’s just what Zenders does – minus the filter coffee and koffiemelk, because they’re simply awful.

The Reymer sisters with mum Betsy.

Sisters Christina, Teresa and Monique Reymer, who founded the Hamilton cafe and function venue, are the daughters of John and Betsy Reymer, part of the tranche of post-World War II migrants from the Netherlands who made their home in New Zealand. The couple married and raised 10 children on a Waikato dairy farm, but never taught them Dutch, because it was more important to be a Kiwi. So their children did what all good migrant children did then: they integrated and joined the group academics now call “the invisible immigrants”.

Fortunately they didn’t erase all vestiges of their culture and some domestic artefacts remained, as did their way of socialising. So when the second-generation Reymer sisters heard their great-grandfather’s boerderij (farmhouse) in Holland was about to be sold, they did the next best thing to buying it – they got hold of the plans and rebuilt the old boerderij on prime land just out of Hamilton.

They found a Dutch builder and bricklayer, imported the bricks and tiles from Europe, recycled timber from a Catholic presbytery and named it Zenders, the nickname of the region their family hails from, Zevenaar.

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“Schildheuvel” means Shield Hill. The cafe was opened by three sisters, and the letters were salvaged from their great-grandfather’s farmhouse in the Netherlands, which has been pulled down.

A traditional boerderij has the family living in the front third, with hay and over-wintering animals in the rear two-thirds. Here, the cafe is in the front, while the events venue (large enough to handle 180 people seated or 350 standing) is in the back. The foyer, which would have once been the creamery, is now a reception room while the Orange Room, which would have housed the pigsty, is used for smaller gatherings.

The project is an exercise in nostalgia and revaluing their Dutch heritage, as well as a serious business for the sisters, who between them have expertise in market research, governance and international development. Says Teresa: “I did my MBA on strategic planning in the hospitality industry, so that fed into it, too. This whole thing hasn’t been done on a whim. It has been very carefully planned.”

Zenders Cafe in Hamilton is a Dutchie’s delight, from the decor to traditional treats such as appeltaart.

Zenders opened in December last year, warmly welcomed by Dutchies and non-Dutchies alike. The sisters also encourage Dutchies to bring along photos and share them on the wall in the foyer, where shots of the Reymer family are on display.

“Most of the albums are so similar, they could be pictures of my family,” says Teresa. “It’s the same story: coming over by boat, finding an empty plot, building a house, marrying, having children, developing the land, Sinterklaas and so on. We all have so much in common.”

Zenders' appeltaart.

This article was first published in the December 2019 issue of North & South. Follow North & South on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and sign up to the fortnightly email for more great stories.