For residents and returning Staffordians, there's one place in the town centre that is synonymous with home. It feels like it's always been there, is welcoming, smells divine, and makes you feel like kicking your shoes off and relaxing...
Picture it; the old Hovis bread sign outside the pretty entrance, the rocking horse that children are allowed to ride, the church pew seating, the ladies behind the counter in their black and white uniforms, the copper pans, and that familiar whooshing sound from the hot water dispenser behind the counter — all a familiar and welcome Stafford experience.
Then there's the signature Soup Kitchen line, "Would you like cream on your hot chocolate?" Was there ever a more rhetorical question? I've loved their hot chocolates for 35 years - those pretty glass tumblers and a mountainous swirl of naughty cream on top, with a dusting of chocolate powder. It's a drink you have to eat with a spoon.
Another constant at the Soup Kitchen is the ever smiling face of the owner, Duncan Sandy, who never seems to have a day off and is always there at the door, personally greeting the steady flow of non-stop customers, often by their first names. Duncan is from the Sandy family Stafford dining 'dynasty'.
I remember his father, Freddie, who was known as Mr Wimpy in my day. He owned all three Wimpys in Stafford, starting his first one in the 1960s at Milford Common.
It's still there today. "Dad's 82 now and still plays tennis," says Duncan. "His first coffee shop was called The Popin — it was opposite the old hospital. Then there was The Juliet on Newport Road where you could get coffees and milkshakes till 11pm. He opened The Grove next to St Mary's Church in the 1960s.
“My brother, Tim, manages that today, and then he opened the Soup Kitchen in 1980. We also had a beach cafe in Wales at one time.”
You could eat at the Soup Kitchen every week for a year and still not get through the whole menu. The food is very traditional, comforting produce, and is beautifully presented.
There's a long list of lovely sandwiches including coronation chicken, smoked salmon and cheddar cheese. There are salads, omelettes, toasties, jacket potatoes, roast dinners, meat pies, and waist expanding desserts like chocolate fudge cake, enormous lemon meringue pies, knickerbocker glories, and bakewell, treacle or fruit tarts.
There are fresh scones, hot buttered teacakes brought fresh to your table, and a range of more continental dishes like pizzas and rostis that all prove very popular. There's also now a range of gluten-free cakes. The children's menu is a dream for parents - with mini proper meals like roasts and cottage pie. There's even a babies menu - with a mashed potato dinner and drinks served in beakers, and baby bottle warming facilities. They cater really well for young families.
The Sandys are a talented lot. Duncan's sister, Gemma, played Eponine in the West End's Les Miserables, and another brother, Bob, was a BBC Producer. It seems the entertainment business is in the blood.
Dad Freddie opened his first Wimpy at Milford, with Stafford florist, John Woods, as his first customer. There followed the Wimpy that used to behind Woolworths (now Sports Direct) and then the Wimpy by the Apollo Cinema which is now leased out as the Casa.
The Soup Kitchen has become the jewel in the sandy crown — and is in the top-performing 10 per cent of all businesses worldwide on TripAdvisor, which recently awarded it a Certificate of Excellence.
Duncan bought the business from his father in 1992 and has been there at the helm ever since, seeing it grow and expand, despite recessions and competition from numerous American-brand coffee shops that have opened in the town.
"We'd expanded our range of coffees before they all opened," explains Duncan, "and we started opening at 8.30 in the morning to serve breakfasts to shoppers and workers. We get a lot of business from the court nearby, with lawyers, jurors and even the press when there's a big case on.
“Rowan Atkinson came in once with his family. They found us in the Egon Ronay Guide and were looking for a family-friendly coffee shop in Stafford. Most of our customers are regulars. Some come twice a day. I'm on first name terms with many of them and it's nice to see people who've been coming here for years now bringing their children and grandchildren.”
Veronica Bright has worked here as a waitress for 23 years. "It's a lovely place to work and the customers are so nice."
I ask what her favourite dish is off the menu. "Oh, the steak pie," she says without hesitating. "The meat is so tender, it just melts in your mouth.”
Another waitress, Chelsey Fuggle, 19, is a Stafford College student and Lichfield Ladies rugby player. "There's a real family atmosphere here, it's a great place to work. I love the steak pie too, and the omelettes."
All the food is made on the premises. "We have our own bakehouse," explains Duncan, "and we source our produce locally. Everything is made fresh in our kitchens.”
Over my shoulder I can see a family enjoying their lunch. Baby Florence is just 12 days old and her mum, Sam, says she loves the fact that she can easily get the pushchair into the dining room.
"We come from Great Wyrley to eat here and have a day out. It's great for families. My toddler, Henry, plays with the toys they provide and he's just sat politely at the table and wolfed down a proper dinner."
Outside in the sunshine there are three young men from a New Zealand cycling team sat enjoying afternoon tea. They're trying scones and treacle tart for the first time and declare them to be delicious. "We don't have anything like this at home", they announce.
"It's a real cultural experience". Indeed, it is. And a yummy one too!