Fat Kitty Dances to its Own Beat
Amelia Leath of Auckland’s Fat Kitty reveals how hard work and a commitment to fun helped the quirky cafe quickly become a darling on the local vegan scene
Finding a cafe that dares to colour outside the lines of predictable brunch fare can be a challenge — when such a gem is unearthed, it’s often held in fanatical regard from punters hungry for novelty. Fat Kitty on Auckland’s Dominion Road is such an establishment; as daring as it is delicious, the cafe has quickly earned well deserved cult status.
Whether by its free-wheeling marriage of Asian and Euro cuisine, eccentrically sultry promo photoshoots, cacophonous array of local decoration, or community-focused events, Fat Kitty has carved out a truly unique identity. And the strong plant-based leanings of its menu have made it a fast favourite with the local vegan crowd.
Fat Kitty is owned and operated by partners Amelia Leath and Jarrad Amanono; Amelia shares with us the ups and downs of establishing a successful niche eatery in today’s challenging hospitality environment.
Aotearoa Vegan: Who are the people behind Fat Kitty?
Amelia Leath: We’re Amelia and Jarrad, from Christchurch and Whangārei, respectively. We met each other at a catering company we both worked at, as we are a pastry chef and a chef (respectively). I spent some time wearing down Jarrad, I knew they were hiding a personality under that stoic cranky chef demeanour, and we’ve been pretty inseparable ever since. Food has always been at the core of our relationship and getting to have full creative control of the menu at Fat Kitty is a lot of fun, but we definitely feel like children lacking adult supervision sometimes [laughs]. We really just try to have fun and be as authentic and vulnerable as possible with our customers and brand.
How did Fat Kitty come to be?
We opened mid August 2021, for about four days before NZ went into its longest lockdown to date! It was great to get a break after smashing out the cafe set up, but it really stole all the momentum we had been building as a brand.
I have always been very entrepreneurial and prefer to be my own boss. My ADHD, which at the time was undiagnosed and I wasn’t aware of, made it really hard to be a “good employee”. Once I was diagnosed, it was like all of that energy that had been bouncing around inside of me became laser focused and the cafe was born only a few months later. Gotta hand it to Jarrad, they’re always up for an adventure, even if it has been an incredibly hard adventure.
How did you go about developing the Fat Kitty concept?
Jarrad’s favourite food (to cook) is French European and mine (to eat) is Japanese and Asian fusion. Fat Kitty’s unique Pan-Asian fusion style developed naturally from the way we cook together. We really wanted to put some flavour and excitement back into brunch.
Our food is playful and weird and hopefully it ignites your curiosity. It’s not going to be for everyone but at the same time we’re not trying to be.
Why is vegan and vegetarian food important to Fat Kitty?
At the heart of Fat Kitty is inclusivity and community. As two neurodivergent people whose special interest is food, creating a space where friend groups could come and share food together, where people who don’t always see many options for their dietary needs catered to could have too many options, was really important to us. Food is so pivotal to the human experience in many ways, and it really fills my cup to see people get so excited over our menus and all the dishes they’re able to have.
If we look to the future, vegetarianism and veganism will continue to grow, as all of us reading this know, so we felt sure that if we could just survive those first two or three years we would be able to position ourselves really strongly for the future.
Have you found the vegan community to be supportive?
Yes, absolutely. The vegan community has been amazing to us.
Obviously the vegan community needs to and should support 100% vegan businesses first; as we’ve seen from the last couple of years, that market is very small and many of the exclusively vegan businesses haven’t been able to keep their doors open, which is really really unfortunate.
Having some non-vegan options gives us a much bigger market share and means we have been able to survive.
Vegan people can bring their friends and softly introduce them to vegan food if they’re fussy. So much of food is a mental experience and people can definitely get in their heads about vegan food, as we see often. But at the end of the day, good food is good food, and if you’re open minded to trying something new, you might just surprise yourself and be more open minded going forward.
What are your most popular dishes?
It’s probably a tie between our Fat Hashbrown (vegan and this menu’s edition features an eggplant kasundi and vegan mayonnaise) and our Dumpling Sandwiches (both flavours are vegan; we have a miso mushroom flavour and a ‘pork’ and kimchi flavour).
Our favourite is the Dumpling Sandwiches. They just bring us both a lot of joy. In true Fat Kitty fashion, they originally made it on to the menu as a joke. Something that we loved to eat at home but it felt so ridiculous to put on our menu, we didn’t think anyone would order it — I mean, what on earth is a dumpling sandwich?!
Now they are an Auckland Iconic Eat and we sell out of them all the time. They really do just make sense in your mouth, especially with some of our homemade chilli oil on top.
Can you tell us about the events Fat Kitty hosts?
Our regular events are a huge part of building community. Once a month we have a 20-35s book club, an autism meetup, an 18-30s queer meetup, and a knitting and crochet meetup. We’re also starting to do a 28+ queer meet up whenever there’s a fifth Tuesday in a month. We’d love to do more events but it’s a gradual growth thing, we don’t have any staff and everything is a tradeoff with time and energy, but we are looking into how to make more events happen.
A lot of people have made new friends through our events already, which just melts my heart. It’s so hard to make friends as adults and anything we can do to facilitate that is worth doing. Fat Kitty is such a friendly space with great energy and knowing you’re around people with things in common already definitely helps to take the pressure off. It’s an especially great way for people new to the city to meet some potential friends and find community.
You have a wall of local artists’ work which you display and sell, how has that been going?
The art wall is pretty amazing. It gives the cafe such great vibes and provides an interactive experience — our artists are customers, some of our customers become our artists, people follow artists on social media after seeing their art, and it all feeds into the community we have and are building here. I feel so lucky that we have the space and opportunity to do the art wall and that it’s been a huge success.
It has been a tough time for hospo, how have you faced the challenges?
We’re just kids really, we have no idea what we’re doing and we were definitely dreamers coming into this. Business is hard. I love this place and I’m so proud of what we’ve achieved, but it’s also been a huge reality check.
We never had much money to begin with and that’s probably been the single biggest cause of stress for us, because of all the other issues that has caused. We tackled that by not having staff and pouring all of our time and energy into the cafe’s growth, because our time and energy was free, but that has definitely come at a cost to our mental health and relationships. I wouldn’t recommend it and I definitely wouldn’t do it over again, but I think we are through the worst of it now.
It’s yet to be seen how increasing environmental issues like flooding will impact the economy and society’s ability to continue living “normally”. Part of tackling issues is trying to see approaching new issues before they really start impacting your business, trying to switch perspectives and see the bigger picture is really important.
What can people look forward to from Fat Kitty in the future?
Now that we’ve built a really strong niched brand, we’re starting to look at what we can fine tune and cut back on. We’ve learnt a lot about our business over the last 1.5 years, so how can we take that knowledge and use it to make our lives easier? Because the amount we had been working and doing wasn’t sustainable. Our mindset has changed recently from just trying to survive to, how can we strategically start to thrive?
We tend to dance to the beat of our own drum a little bit. So far, that’s been really well received so it’s about continuing to just do what we do, and do it well.
It’ll be time for another new menu soon as the seasonal produce changes, which will mean another elaborate photoshoot — these shoots are a really fun way for us to collaborate with our community, artists of all kinds can make their own little mark on Fat Kitty’s history and it’s just so so cool to think about how many people have left their print here. It’s also awesome to get to do creative things outside of the kitchen and I really enjoy coordinating the shoots and coming up with the concepts.
We’re focusing more and more on catering as well. We’ve been doing a lot of catering and donated catering for charities and events that align with our values. It’s been awesome to see this side of our business and Bella’s Baked, which is a side project for vegan and no-added-gluten cookie pies with a friend, really start to grow.
Fat Kitty can be found at 360C Dominion Rd, Mount Eden, Auckland, open 8am–4pm Wednesday–Sunday and 12-10pm on Tuesday. Visit www.fat-kitty-cafe.com for the menu, event details, and more information.
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