THE FOOTBRIDGE – ONE STEP AT A TIME

Every day of our lives we open a new page. Invariably the story continues has it had the day before; we wake, follow routines, go to work, dinner, bed, repeat. Sprinklings of glitter scatter the pages – a new relationship, a holiday, a windfall – but often, save for a handful of typos, they follow the story of days and weeks gone by.

But for Cameron and Jackie McNeilage, life has given them disparate stories, a loose theme binding them, the main characters intrinsic, but the wending tales leading a life of their own.

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Their tale began on opposite sides of the Pacific, Jackie in Australia, but Cameron born and raised in Montreal, Canada. But already, fate was weaving them together.

“My father’s Canadian, but my mother is from Mackay in Queensland,” shares Cam of his heritage. “My parents met here in Australia, were married here and then my brother was born down in Melbourne. Then they moved to Canada and I lived there for 25 years.”

Cam’s early adult life was successful. Establishing a painting and renovations business with his brother, he was never in any shortage of work and things looked good for the 20-something entrepreneur. But though this life was good, it was never the one he chose.

Ten years ago, at the age of 24, Cam had had enough. Too many hours pushing brushes and picking paint and dust from his hair took their toll and, selling out his share of the business, he bought a one-way ticket to Australia and became a barman in Sydney.

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“I was just going on an adventure,”Cam reflects, “I wasn’t necessarily going to spend the rest of my life here. But I met my future wife in Sydney and we moved to Melbourne together.”

Although qualifying herself as a Melbournian, Jackie’s past is as patchwork, if not more so, than Cam’s. Born in South Africa, raised in Melbourne, living in Far North Queensland, she moved to Sydney where she lived for several years before the couple met.

In 2006, the couple were forced to leave Sydney when Jackie fell pregnant with the couple’s first child, Jasper.

“I was bar tending – that’s my passion, that’s what I love to do. I managed the Anandale Pub down there, which is a wonderful, kick-ass, dirty rock n’ roll venue. Jackie looked at me one morning and said, ‘I can’t do this anymore – I can’t have you coming home at 7 o’clock in the morning all the time.’ So I got a job at a university café on Lygon Street. I’d never worked in a café before but I just enjoy serving people, so it was all good.”

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Despite still holding the dream of owning his own live music venue, Cam succumbed to more the family-favourable hours of the café scene. Investing in their own business, the duo made their mark on the cliquey Melbourne scene, establishing a humble but hugely popular café. Now with a second child, Cam and Jackie embraced their new career path with great success. But it wasn’t long before Cam’s itchy feet started tickling him once more.

“We sold our café in Melbourne with the intentions of moving back to Canada – the grass is always greener. Before doing that, we decided to travel around Australia. We packed up our house in Melbourne, we had boxes labelled ‘Canada’, we put everything into storage, we bought an old pop-top van and were going to drive around Australia with our two kids. We made it about three or four weeks before Jackie was pregnant again and just a few weeks after that she said she didn’t want to travel anymore.”

What could have been a bucket of water to the spark of Cam’s passion for travel became instead the punctuation to a whole new and wonderful chapter in their story. Having stopped temporarily in Brisbane, they visited Byron Bay on reconnoissance for their new home and potential place of business. Though appealing to many, the hustle and bustle and constant stream of tourists didn’t entice the couple, but, loving the region if not the town, they took a friend’s advice and ventured the stone’s throw north to Brunswick Heads.

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“We just came up one day and thought it was pretty cool,” Cam recalls. “We moved into the caravan park for about three weeks and just fell in love with the place. I’d never been in a place like this before. You can walk down the street and people look at you for half a second longer, or nod, or actually say good morning.

“The café was for lease and I was looking at it every day when I walked past. One day we were sitting at the picnic tables in the park across the road and I just said, ‘you want to do it?’ And just like that, we called them up, rented the café, rented a house and it all started.”

At the beginning of 2012, the Footbridge opened for business. Bringing with them the experience gained from their time in Melbourne, Cam and Jackie created something unique: warm, rustic, fun yet cultured, the Footbridge is a little bit beachy, a little but artisan, a perfect reflection of their own eclectic personae.

As is so necessary in these days of café culture and coffee snobbery, their baristas are the cornerstone of their business. Cam’s watchful eye and kind yet professional guidance ensures that not a single broken crema or over-poured shot gets across the counter. This is the superb foundation on which they have built success. When other cafés in the area may only be filling a handful of tables, Footbridge will have a line out the door.

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But, while the coconut milk lattes, double-cappuccinos and rooibos chais may please the punters, this is only one facet of the Footbridge‘s appeal.

“[Both the café in Melbourne and the Footbridge were] inspired some incredible people in the scene down there,” says Cam. “We wanted to create a family-friendly, community-oriented café to suit our lifestyle. We took the lessons we’d learned from the last one and put the same work ethic into it. To be honest, we didn’t really think too much about how to fit ourselves into the market or our exact identity, we were just going to do what we did.

“It [a café] is wholly and completely a reflection of who you are. People associate it with you and, because you’re there so often, it’s almost one and the same. Because it’s so public you’re exposed the day you open that café. It’s like you walk out into the middle of the street, you take off all your clothes and you stand there for hours and hours and let everyone examine every last nook and cranny.”

Cam views the business as an intertwined, inseparable aspect of his personal life, as if inviting the general public into his own living room, and as such wants to create the very best reflection of himself that he possibly can.

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And that’s exactly how the Footbridge feels – as if you have stepped into someone’s home, been welcomed with open arms by friends and family. Meals, though superbly presented, bare that rustic, home-cooked feel, mis-matched cutlery and furniture disband the sterility of other establishments. Every aspect, through Cam and Jackie’s simple, professional passion, combines perfectly to make you feel as if you belong.

But Cam is not in business for the competition. He sees the town as united, with more than enough potential customers, between the locals and the steady stream of tourists, to go around. He knows his fellow café owners by first name, waves hello, talks shop and dispels all notion of opposition or threat.

Keeping it local is incredibly important to Cam and Jackie, but it is carefully balanced with quality. Produce will be sourced from within the region as much as possible, but with an established menu, if, say, local tomatoes aren’t up to scratch, they will source further afield to meet their unwaveringly high standards.

“It’s really hard to a certain degree,” Cam confesses. “If we need x amount of a certain product 365 days a year, it’s really hard to get it locally, especially things that are seasonal. And then there’s quality issues. A big storm came through a while ago – all of a sudden we couldn’t get our organic greens from Tyagarah – but they’re on our menu and I needed them, so I had to source elsewhere. Our coffee is all locally roasted and it’s grown up in Federal, our milk is all organic, we get all of our free-range meats locally, but it is very hard to get everything from around here all year round.

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“You have to work so hard to do the local thing, but it’s something that we really value and do as much as possible and we always try to do more.”

From their Lamb Royale to their black sticky rice pudding, every dish the Footbridge serves feels like it was made for the first time, just for you, not churned out on a conveyor belt, a cookie cutter copy of the previous order.

The Footbridge, though a culmination of influences, is unique. As you sit gazing east across Banner Park and on to the gently flowing Brunswick River, staff chat to you as if to a long-lost friend. You are left to your own devices but always aware that help is just a smile away. And even on its most packed-out popular days, you can still find your own little pocket of peace amongst the reclaimed timber furniture and bunches of gerberas.

For Cam, the dream will always be to return to the bar, to own his own seedy rock n’ roll bar, pumping out live music by unsigned musos to an appreciative crowd. But for both Cam and Jackie, their passion and their hearts are bound to the Footbridge. Until the day (if or when) they close up shop, everything they do will be done the very best it possibly can be because, as Cam philosophises, “The worst thing in the world would be to be the café that used to be good.”

The Footbridge is open seven days a week, 6:30 am – 4:00 pm Mon-Fri and 7:00 am – 4:00 pm Sat and Sun, located on The Terrace, Brunswick Heads.

For more information visit their Facebook page: www.facebook.com/BrunswickHeadsFootbridge

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– This article first appeared on Common Ground Australia on Sep 1, 2014

All Photos: ©SubCutanea

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