As I walk into the glass-walled café, not quite sure who I should be meeting, I wonder how awesome it would be to always Instagram photos of the food here, and just be, like, the perfect poster girl for the charming Caffe Brazza.
Like magic, I walk up to the owner, Ilse Stears to ask if it is indeed her. She affirms my curiosity with a bear hug and a, “Hi, I’m glad you’ve made it on time, because I have so much going on today.”
I don’t ask what makes today different from the rest but as I take the seat she’s offered me, I quickly notice [and maybe it was just for that time slot] it attracts a predominantly white crowd of [seemingly] professionals, shoppers, full-time moms and cool kids, and Ilse’s unfussy preparations (no fancy foams here) allow her dedication to fresh ingredients and healthy eating to shine.
A quick Q&A with a diner seated to my right table reveals her patrons marvel that her banting meals taste like they’re out of Tim Noakes’ kitchen. I chuckle because I have no idea what banting is or who Tim Noakes is. I quickly Google those, as he says this so fast and very articulately that it seems rehearsed, but at the sight of Ilse lip-and-cheek kissing diner after diner as they come and go, I reluctantly realize how easily it would be to feel that homey here.
I soon realise, this is the place any cancer, diabetes or high blood pressure patient or any health-conscious diner would want to dine at, Every. Single. Day!
She returns to our table, which is right at the center of the café and apologizes for the interruption, before offering me a cup of tea.
“We have a huge variety of flavored chai; would you like a cup or would you like green, black or rooibos tea?” Ilse asks before waving to a departing couple with a huge smile, then apologizes to me again. I’m puzzled at how undisturbed I am by the interruptions and it soon hits me why that is; this could be anyone’s “timeout place”!
Despite its centrality in Maerua Mall, upstairs along the super busy hallway that leads to Checkers, it is surprisingly not as noisy as most cafes tend to be. And just like that, I find a new love!
“May I show you the chai bags we have?” she asks signaling me to follow her to the left top corner of the café where it lays a large-sized briefcase-type open drawer full of carefully arranged flavored chai bags. I’m instantly amazed at how many they are and before I ask what her source is, she cheerfully prompts; “I get these from an Omaruru guy.”
She soon has to take a call then returns to usher me back to our table after instructing one of the waitresses to bring my lemon and ginger tea and refill her green teapot.
Before choosing the teas, however, one of her patrons drops by to chat in Afrikaans about a Swakopmund fatal accident of a construction worker who fell off a high storey building near the restaurant Ilse, her two children and her mother were dining at, a few weeks ago.
She later narrates the ordeal to me in detail, explaining how it changed her perspective on life forever. “I had never met him, but after picking up the phone to call for help while everyone else was panicking around his lifeless, bloody body, just outside the restaurant’s terrace, I felt like I’d known him all my life. I stuck around through the whole time it took for help to arrive, as we tried to resuscitate him, and my children asked for brooms and mops to clean up the blood… That incident shook my very core, as I watched one of the two seemingly homeless children, standing by the entrance, weeping. I asked if he knew the man; he said he didn’t, but that seeing him lying there made him sad, because he would see him around and he seemed like a person full of life. That just got me teary. Long story short, I got into the ambulance and offered to pay whatever the cost, since he didn’t have medical plan. Unfortunately, he died in the ambulance.
“That, for me, was the reality part of the misused phrase; ‘Life is short’. One moment, that man was chatting with his colleagues at a construction site while we were enjoying a family moment and within a blink of an eye, all that changed. A man was dead; children’s psyches were polluted, people’s minds were disturbed and their cores shaken!”
It was time to ‘whoosa’, as Ilse stood up to hug and kiss another couple. So I got time to see what I’d actually order on a beautiful morning with my kids; a banting breakfast, with Almond or mango and strawberry tea ($6.40). Alternatively, I could opt for a latte with house-made almond milk ($2.20).
Truth is, Windhoek isn’t known for small, rustic dining rooms where diners show up, sans reservations, to sit at the kitchen counter. But Ilse’s weds sublime dishes like the Brazza Schnitzel Cajun Chicken ($6.15) or spaghetti bolognaise for the hungry diners ($5.43), with freshness that can’t be beat.
With that, I’d suggest you leave the power brokers to their politics and stodgy restaurants; this is where the power eaters go!
Contrary to public perception about blondes, this one is passionate, ambitious, domesticated, warm and very, very spiritual. So I wonder out loud what kind of mother she must be, after seeing how she addresses her 21 employees, who by the way, are all female.
“Firstly, I’ve tried dealing with male employees, but it never worked out. I don’t give up easily on people, but sometimes you have to know when someone’s role in your story has ended, and let them go in peace. I don’t hold any grudges and neither do I burn bridges. That is mainly evident by the fact that being a former high school teacher and corporate career woman, I could walk right back into my former work places and get my jobs back if I wanted them, because I believe in enriching long-term relationships no matter what kind they may be.
“Secondly,” she continues as her dear friend, Andrew, walks into the café and takes a seat at our table, “maybe this you should answer, Andrew.” She quickly tells him who I am and what the interview is for and then lets him answer the question, which she delightfully helps him finish.
“I’m a great mother, I suppose. But as any mother would tell you, there’s no guarantee of perfection in motherhood. My boy is the eldest (15) and is slower than the girls (10 and 8). The youngest girl is so kind and never puts herself first and that trait about her has taught me to put others first, especially with my employees. With my boy, I’ve learnt that slow people are reliable and hard working. They work harder than the rest and never disappoint. The second one is very sporty and is such a talent. Whatever she touches turns into gold.
“We made so many mistakes with our boy, because we spoiled him rotten. We shouldn’t have answered to his every whim, but my husband and I have learnt our lesson and are doing better with the younger ones, by putting more boundaries and making sure they’re respected. I’m the kind of mom who hugs her children very often and tells them, ‘I appreciate you!’.”
As she further explains how hard times have been for her business, yet being able to still open shop, this volleyball sporty coach says; “Since The Grove Mall opened a year ago, times have been hard for us here at Maerua Mall, because of competition. That, however, has been a learning curve for people like us, because we’ve learnt to stay consistent. All these people you see here are mostly people I know, either because I taught their children or worked with them while a career mother.
I’m the kind of mom who hugs her children very often and tells them, ‘I appreciate you!’
“The beauty of being a teacher and then transitioning into a businessperson, the support system never dies. If you know a child you see every day, you will know their parent and their aunt, and uncle, and grandparents and siblings and so on. That kind of family web can take a business like mine a long way.”
But does she have issues with staff laziness, as many employers in Namibia claim?
“Not me. My staff is very loyal. I treat them well and they know where the buck stops. I mean, it has to be a serious situation for any of them to stay out of work and that goes for me as well. I’m here all day, all the time, unless I have a pressing errand to run. I put a lot into my business in terms of effort and I expect the best out of it. I’m a very positive person. So however bad a day may be, I always find a good side to it. Nothing keeps me down.”
With a spirit like hers, what would an aspiring entrepreneur take from her story?
“I have a 50/50 partnership with my partner and when we started, we knew nothing about running a business like this. All we knew was that we wanted to open a coffee shop. We’ve established a system in which all our employees know how to do everything in every part of this café; a bar lady can waiter, a waiter can cook and the cook can do the rest too. That way, we’re sure we would never be stranded in case one person is out. Such are the things we’ve learnt within the three years we’ve been in business, which are aspects of business ownership of this kind that an aspirant can keep.”
Being the only girl amongst her male siblings, this second-born has gone through her entire life protected from the outside world, but even with that, “nothing prepares you for the major pain one can go through in life. I, for instance, couldn’t conceive for so long after getting married and nothing could have prepared me for that amount of emptiness and tough moment. Then my first pregnancy came and my life changed. Being a mother and wife taught me how to cry and let out my emotions through tears because allowing yourself to cry has an amazing effect as regards relief and maintaining a closer relationship with God. Before then, I was a tough nut. Never cracked for anything.
“I like to think of myself as a very reliable person and I couldn’t be a shoulder to cry on when I have baggage on my very shoulder. When we allow ourselves room to deal with our baggage and be free, only then are we able to help others. That’s me,” she says as her eyes moisten as if reminiscing about a point in her life that transformed her into the strong woman she is today.
She takes a deep breath, looks me in my eyes and says, “Losing is not part of winning. I hate to lose and even when I come second, it is never good enough for me, because I’m hard on myself most of the time, but tell you what; you will never understand the importance of having a winning spirit until you check inside. God lives within us and when we look within us and seek to know ourselves, we find Him and we find ourselves, and we get to understand that God is not a loser and He lives in us. So why should we be loser or settle for less than phenomenal?”
To the single ladies and single moms, here’s Ilse’s take on relationships; “Please know what you’re getting yourself into before you invest your emotions into something that isn’t going anywhere. There’s so much at stake. Don’t waste yourself.”