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Canberra duo opening Cafe Stepping Stone in Cartagena, Colombia

With its brightly coloured buildings, cobble-stoned streets and balconies strewn with lush purple and pink bougainvillea, the Colombian city of Cartagena is a far cry from Australia's bush capital. Nevertheless, two young Canberrans, Tom Navakas and Vanessa Brettell, are preparing to pack their backpacks and venture off on the South American trip of a lifetime. 

Their goal is simple yet ambitious: armed with hard earned savings and street smarts gained from years of travel, Navakas and Brettell plan to open a not-for-profit cafe in the heart of Cartagena's bustling old town.

Navakas and Brettell have been joined at the hip since childhood, living around the corner from each other and attending the same primary school. Navakas remembers Brettell's fascination with Latin America beginning at a young age, following a short stint living in Mexico with her family. 

From an early age, Navakas found himself in the grips of a culinary obsession that has lasted a lifetime.  

"I was always in the kitchen at home, or in hospitality classes in school, or doing different cooking courses around town, chopping and baking and trying different recipes," he said. 

As a teenager, Navakas took on a part time job at Deakin's cafe D'Lish, where he perfected the art of cake-making. While he enjoyed satisfying his customers' sweet teeth, he soon realised that his fascination with cooking had transcended the kitchen and evolved into a curiosity about behind-the-scenes management. After graduating high school, Navakas went on to study a double degree in business administration and management at the University of Canberra.

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Like Navakas, Brettell spent her young adulthood pursuing her passions. She recently finished university as the first graduate of the Australian National University's fledgling Latin American Studies Bachelors degree. As part of her studies, Brettell completed a semester studying abroad at Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá, Colombia.

Although culturally rich and naturally beautiful, Colombia is deeply troubled. Beset by devastating socioeconomic inequality, a large proportion of Colombia's populace lives in poverty, leaving many vulnerable to the systematic violation of their economic, social and cultural rights. Although Brettell adored immersing herself in Colombian culture, she found herself deeply affected by the difficulties that plague the nation.

While Navakas was on exchange in Dublin, he met Brettell to travel across Europe.

"During the trip, we spent a lot of time talking about what we wanted to do with our lives – what our next steps would be after uni," said Navakas.

"Vanessa talked a lot about her experiences in Colombia, and was obviously keen to return and help. The more she talked about wanting to make a tangible difference, the more I understood that my skills and training could come in handy in setting up some kind of local not-for-profit that could give back to the people. We both had a tonne of experience in hospitality, so a cafe seemed like the logical option."

The plan for cafe Stepping Stone was the product of a rambling conversation borne of a long bus trip.

"We boarded a bus for a three hour trek through Slovenia, and decided to use the time to plot out the details - how big we want this place to be, how many seats we'd need, what kind of food we wanted to sell. After our trip finished, I got back from exchange in Dublin and Brettell moved back to Australia as well. It was convenient timing, so we decided to get planning in earnest," said Navakas.

The two friends conducted extensive research on not-for-profit organisations with similar goals, including Friends International, a social enterprise committed to providing opportunities for marginalised children and youth, their families and communities in South East Asia and beyond. As part of its outreach program, the group helps disadvantaged young people build their own futures by learning cooking skills.

"Friends International were incredible," said Brettell.

"We showed them our business plan, and they gave us advice. It was exciting knowing we weren't alone in doing what we wanted to do, and that it wasn't impossible for us to do it."

By working multiple jobs, the pair has already raised $50,000 towards the cause, and launched a crowd funding campaign with the aim of raising another $20,000.

Navakas and Brettell have decided to call their enterprise Cafe Stepping Stone to emphasise their desire to provide Colombians in need in with the opportunity to learn new skills, expand their professional experience, and be actively involved in helping to grow a business from the ground up.

Working with community charities, grassroots organisations and Colombian producers, Navakas and Brettell aim to source a home-grown workforce and source all produce locally. They intend to provide their workers with English classes to improve their employability and increase their capacity to engage in the town's tourism industry.

"Cartagena is one of Colombia's most famous tourist towns," said Brettell. 

"We're going to attract travellers and locals with a social conscience." 

Navakas and Brettell's shared passion for overseas adventure has shaped their desire to engage with different cultures and peoples. For Navakas, a passion for travel fed a passion for food.

"Food is so central to the way people express themselves, and eating is a really important way of immersing yourself in a new culture and getting to know its people," he said.

Naturally, the duo is planning on using food to become part of an evolving conversation regarding the best possible way to serve Colombian communities.

"Navakas and I know that one of our biggest challenges will be to work with local charities to identify community needs and involve community members in the process," said Brettell.

To learn more about Tom and Vanessa, head to cafesteppingstone.com