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Doing business in Cartagena

Why are Ian and Angela, an Australian-Colombian couple, doing business in Cartagena, Colombia? For one thing, they make a lot of travelers smile while eating at their Australian Fusion Café, just a short walk from the city’s old town. They serve hefty portions of Aussie, Anglo and Tex Mex dishes. They also make you feel right at home with a friendly, welcoming style.

Ian is originally from Perth while Angela is a native of Bogotá. They met at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah. It was the start of long culinary adventure that would lead to the opening of their restaurant in Cartagena in November 2010. At the Olympics Ian worked as a chef for different resorts and Angela was a hostess.

After the Olympics they toured the states legally with H2B papers Ian pointed out. They did six-month contract work in places like Lake Tahoe, California, Reno and Las Vegas, Nevada, and Naples, Florida.

They also worked in Keystone, South Dakota, home of Mount Rushmore, the famous “Shrine of Democracy.” It is well-known for its huge granite faces of former presidents Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt. Ian also had the opportunity for three days to be chef for Tom Daschle, former US Senator from South Dakota.

Why Cartagena?

Many reasons came into play. They were faced with the downturn in the US economy. Ian wasn’t keen about the high cost of living in Australia. Angela desired to be closer to her family. So the entrepreneurial couple decided to set up a restaurant in Cartagena. The city’s port, fortresses, and group of monuments are one of seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Colombia.

Cartagena is one of Colombia’s most flourishing tourist markets. There are three new major international hotels in the planning along the beach.

For the couple the set up costs for a small restaurant seemed low as well. But at the start they were not happy about losing lost over $10,000 to shady contractors and middle men. But more about the obstacles they overcame later.

A popular menu for all

The restaurant is aimed at a niche market of international travelers. It also appeals to ex-pat locals looking for something different in the way of commonwealth food.

For example, just before my interview with Ian, he was arranging a reception for 35 American women from Texas. Their husbands work on two to three-year contracts at the nearby oil refinery.

Retired folks from the Club Nautica visit regularly ordering one meal for two since the portions are so large. On weekends his regular customers come in for the all-day American-style brunches. Another popular item on the menu is the bagged lunches for the oil refinery crowd. Ian and Angela also serve smoothies and natural juices attracting customers all day long.

Challenges of starting a new business

At the start Ian and Angela faced enormous challenges in setting up their business, even though Angela herself was from Bogotá, Colombia. They learned quickly that the coastal mindset and working style were vastly different from that of the larger Colombian cities, such as Bogotá, Medellin and Cali.

It seemed that all the locals they came into contact with, whether business people or employees, were not as accountable or trustworthy as they would have liked.

For example, in their restaurant the work needed for the installation of the large windows separating the kitchen from the dining area took 12 workers a total of three weeks to complete. The local workers often did not show up at the time or even the day promised.

Ian has also gone through 48 different staff in the short time he’s been open. “You need to have patience to run a business here, lots of patience,” Ian commented. “You need to be on your guard all the time. Never trust anybody. I count the money coming in three times a day.” he added.

And it is still a challenge running a popular restaurant open from 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. weekdays and from 9:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. on weekends.

Looking ahead

Yet in spite of these pitfalls, Ian and Angela are keen on expanding their business. They would like to move to a new, larger location and develop a unique concept for the local market. It’s a closely-kept secret so others don’t run with it before they do.

Ian and Angela will surely succeed. They have a lot going for them. First, they now know the ins and outs of the local business and working culture. Second, they both have a passion and desire to continue to grow. Lastly, they have an exciting new concept in the works that they are ready to implement in connection with the right people.

Do’s and don’ts before starting a business in Cartagena

Ian offered some sound advice for those interested in going into business in Cartagena.

- Live there for at least eight months before taking any action. Get immersed in the local culture. Live life as a local getting all the business information you can.

- Have a clear idea of what kind of business you want to start. Know your market niche.

- Work with local business people whom you can trust.

- Do not come with a heart of gold. Be on guard all the time.

- Choose the right banking facilities that meet your needs.

- Once you have started your business, think about what you are doing from time to time so you can re-adjust.

- Be able to drive a car because you can not depend on other forms of transportation.

- Make sure you sign up for the right medical program that covers what you are looking for.

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