An iconic Shaftesbury town centre tearoom will open under new management in time for Shaftesbury Fringe weekend.
King Alfred’s Kitchen is a much-loved local landmark. Old postcards from the 1930s and 1950s reveal its popularity amongst generations of locals and visitors. But the premises have been vacant since last August.
On Wednesday, a new leaseholder hopes to bring a new lease of life to the 13th century, half-timbered café. It’ll be a major life change for New Forest resident, Conrad Sandison, too. “My background is in the motor trade, so that’s not particularly relevant. And I was an estate agent. I have been officially ‘the devil’,” Conrad laughed.
Opening a tearoom represents a dream come true for Conrad. “This has always been a passion of mine. I’m a keen cook. I’m very, very foodie,” he said. When Conrad isn’t working, he says he is glued to programmes like ‘Masterchef’ and ‘Bake Off’. “I watch all the shows, read all the magazines, read all the books. It’s very much my life.”
Although he’s making the switch from cars to cakes, Conrad has worked in hotels where he has prepared and served the sandwiches and treats you expect in any good tearoom. He has plenty of customer experience, too. “I have run a pub, in Australia. For most of the time I was in Canberra, which is the Australian version of Milton Keynes,” joked Conrad.
But he is not putting any dishes from down under on the menu. “There won’t be any ‘roo burger’. They have a lot of steak out there and they eat a lot of pies as well, but we’re going to go down a bit more of a classic route here, I think,” said Conrad.
That means traditional tearoom fare, but it seems that locals and visitors who love the taste of Spain will also be in for a treat. “We will run, for the summer, a Mediterranean tapas menu.” Conrad will trial his favourite food in the evening, at weekends, at first. “I think I will do it on a Friday and Saturday night. If we are booked up constantly, we’ll obviously offer longer hours,” he said.
Conrad has already picked his key menu items. “There are classic things, like patatas bravas and gambas pil-pil, which is a prawn dish. The calamari will be better than anything you will be getting from any of the pubs. There will be lots of vegetable dishes. There will be about twelve to fifteen to choose from.”
Conrad’s decorator was busily painting over the dark blue between the beams in the upstairs dining room as we chatted. He is brightening up the space with white paint. From the first floor, the competition is visible but Conrad doesn’t consider the chains to be a threat. “When I looked at the building, I saw Costa two doors down. I’m not going to try and win the battle of takeaway coffee. They’ve got the market for that. But they haven’t got any high-quality food in there. They’ve not got a venue like this, and I’m hoping that locals will support a local business rather than international conglomerates.”
Conrad isn’t a complete stranger to this area. He’s lived near Wincanton and he has Shaftesbury area connections. “My sister lives in Shaftesbury. My mother lives in Sturminster Newton,” he says.
Despite the family ties, he was considering tea rooms in other areas but when he saw King Alfred’s Kitchen, he was sold on Shaftesbury. “The premises really won it for me. It’s a fantastic opportunity and location. What a building!”
Conrad led me downstairs to a long cellar vault, its stone ceiling was also painted white. In Greece or Spain, this could be a stylish bar space. He is considered what to do with it, although that’s for the future. He has plenty of ideas. “Everyone’s telling me that they’ve nowhere to go of an evening specifically, and they lack food choice. We will see what the uptake is. I’m sure if anyone comes, they won’t be disappointed,” said Conrad.