Everything I Ever Needed to Know About Business I Learned Running a Burrito Shop in Costa Rica

I’m a business coach, working with CEOs, founders, and high-level executives to bring their performance to the next level.

You may think that I learned my craft from some million-dollar business guru. But actually, much of my best training came simply from the school of life.

Here’s a fun story about a series of experiences that taught me a great deal about business …

In 1996, upon graduating from college, and had no idea what to do with my life, so I did what any good 21-year old does—I took off and went traveling.

I went with a friend named Mike Gamson who happens to have a particularly good mind for business, and I didn’t know it at the time, but I was about to learn a series of some of the best business lessons of my life.

Our journey started with three months in South America—Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador. We didn’t have much of a plan, but we had a few bucks and spoke some Spanish, so we figured that would suffice.

Our goal was to be away for a total of about nine months, spending the last six months in Costa Rica to hang out and learn how to surf. Our meager post-college savings weren’t enough to get us through our whole stay, so we had to come up with a way to make some money.

Here are the lessons I learned in the process …

Find the Need

When we first got to Costa Rica, we parked ourselves on a little beach town called Jaco (it’s since been heavily developed, and now has a big party scene, but at the time it just had a dirt road through the middle of town).

We knew that we wanted to make some money, so we looked into job possibilities. We found out that the average job would pay the equivalent of about $1 per hour, so knew we had to come up with a Plan B.

We canvassed around town to see where the opportunities lay, and one night while in a taxi, we asked the taxi driver what he thought the town needed. He explained to us that the late night restaurant had burned down, and since there were a couple discotecas (nightclubs) in town, there was nowhere to get food after they closed.

We called this guy “Carne en la calle” (meat on the street) because he was vociferously advocating that we start a cart that carried meat on the street for these late-night club-goers.

I didn’t know it at the time, but the seed had been planted for our new business venture.

Bring Something New

Mike came downstairs the next morning in the cabinas (beach hotel) where we were staying, and proposed an idea—“What if we create a late night restaurant?” His idea was that we would cater to the partiers and club-goers who no longer had access to late-night food after their festivities. I agreed, and we got straight to work.

One of the first details we had to decide on was the kind of restaurant we wanted to open. Being in a small town, we were somewhat limited to rice and beans, which were the easiest local ingredients to come by—so we went with burritos.

The burrito was a foreign concept to Costa Ricans, but we figured there were enough surfers in town to sustain the business. Besides, it seemed like a fun challenge to bring a new concept into a place that had never seen it before. [Side note: if you understand Spanish, you know that burrito actually means “little donkey,” so we had quite a challenge getting over that one with the locals!]

The hardest thing to find were the tortillas. All they had in this little town were tiny little corn tortillas that could barely hold a few beans. Mike talked about a burrito place back in his hometown of Chicago that boasted “burritos as big as your head,” and we wanted to fashion ours off of that concept. Needless to say, these tiny little tortillas just wouldn’t do.

After spending hours torturing the local tortilla lady who made these tiny corn tortillas over an open fire, we decided to change course. While I made preparations in town, Mike went to the main city of San Jose to find some big tortillas, which he was able to procure.

We had a sign made, and at last, we were in business. Get ready Costa Rica—we present to you, “Viva Burritos!”

Friends hanging out on the balcony of our restaurant (from left to right: Joe, Pete, Joe, Mike, Hershel, me, Debbie)

Friends hanging out on the balcony of our restaurant

(from left to right: Joe, Pete, Joe, Mike, Hershel, me, Debbie)

Get It Out There

We built an entire restaurant in a space that was originally an apartment on the second story of a building in the middle of town. We had someone come in to help us with the woodwork—tables, chairs, a bar, and a huge wall that separated the kitchen and the eating space. Someone else came in and painted some cool designs on the walls, and even the ceiling!

After some of the legal processes and hiring our first employee (a young Costa Rican named Hershel), we had to crack the code to getting people to our little spot.

Since we were a late-night spot, we decided to go to the source—we brought our burritos to the discoteca.

Every night, we would prepare dozens of burritos for our soon-to-be clients, and then head to the club.

There we stood, two gringos outside the discoteca on the beach in Costa Rica, selling our enormous “little donkeys”—it must have been quite a sight to behold for the intoxicated Costa Ricans pouring out of the nightclub doors.

But the great thing about this group was that they were inebriated, and hungry—not always the best combination for smooth interactions, but there was no question they wanted our food.

As we handed each customer their food, we’d tell them about the restaurant in the middle of town. Our words often landed on deaf ears because they were so sauced, but it was ok because they were buying the product we had on-hand.

Make Strategic Investments

We kept up our late-night marketing efforts for a while, but pretty soon we realized that it was too exhausting to be the late-night place. We changed tactics, and decided to be a lunch and dinner place so that we could surf in the morning and prep the food later. After all, this was a lifestyle business.

Then one day we came back from surfing and left our boards out on the deck so that they could dry before we put them away. An hour later, two guys walking down the street asked if they could rent our boards, and we said what any two guys open to making a buck would say … “Of course!”

Naturally, this gave us an idea: since we were in a surf town, and surfers were coming to our place to eat, why not expand our business by buying, selling and renting surfboards?

We decided to go for it, and all of a sudden, Viva Burritos! was not only a restaurant, but a surf shop too. We made a strategic investment, bought a bunch of boards, and before we knew it, we had launched our second line of business.

We were quickly becoming one of the “must go” spots in this little town on the beach.

Get Deep Into Their World

We now had a multi-pronged business, and it wasn’t just about selling low-dollar burritos—now we were buying and selling (relatively) high-dollar surfboards—which required salesmanship.

The most I’d ever sold at that point in my life were T-shirts I’d created in college. It was a fun way to meet people and make a few bucks. I went door to door in my dorm and sold the shirts for $10 bucks a pop at about a $4 margin.

But now I was feeling out of my league selling boards that were $100 and up. There were a few surf shops in town, so we had stiff competition. If people didn’t like our boards or the way we sold them, they could literally walk right down the street and buy one from someone else.

Mike listened in as I tried to sell my first few boards, and it quickly became apparent that I had no idea what I was doing! These were hot prospects, and he let me flub them so that he could teach me how to sell—Mike’s words of wisdom were some of the best lessons in sales I would ever receive.

Within a month or so I improved greatly. My close ratio was up from about 10% to about 50%. I started to understand that it was more about getting into the customer’s world, understanding why they loved surfing and what made them tick.

In later years, when I did a stint in corporate, I sold deals that were worth over a million dollars, but it always came back to these formative lessons selling surfboards on the beach.

Viva Burritos copy

Our business card (created by Bryna Gamson, Mike’s Mom)

When You Want to Grow, Just Listen

About halfway through our time in Costa Rica, we came upon another realization—people needed a place to stay when they came to the beach. Naturally, we were the “go-to guys” to ask about such places, and we’d refer them to this place or that.

Until one day when Mike said to me, “I don’t feel inspired to refer people to these places anymore. Why don’t we just offer a place to stay here?”

At the time, all we had was one apartment that we’d turned into both a restaurant and a surf shop, but we’d been bitten by the entrepreneurial bug, and it was time to grow yet again. Our customers were asking us for a solution—all we needed to do was listen!

And so we rented the apartment next door. It was the same deal as the space we rented for the Viva Burritos!, but this time, instead of decking it out as a restaurant, we put a bunch of beds in there, turning it into a youth hostel—a cheap bed for the night.

Now we practically had everything anyone would need during a visit to the beach—a place to stay, food to eat, and all the necessary equipment for beach activities—we had become a one-stop shop! This was because we listened, and were open to meeting our customers’ needs as they naturally told us what was hot on their list.

The Upshot

These lessons have been incredibly important, not only in business, but also in life. I use these skills every day as a coach, helping leaders tap into what they want to create, and helping them accelerate the process of achieving their goals.

Looking back, I can see that the fundamental lessons that I learned selling burritos and surfboards in Costa Rica are in many ways the same keys for all levels of business. As I help leaders tap into their business growth, I often go back to the basics, because more likely than not, the keys are hiding right there in plain sight.

On the surface, a trip to South America and Costa Rica after college felt like a way to get away from normal life, and on one level it was. But more significantly, that “getaway” taught me some of my most important lessons in business—lessons that I still use every day, and will never forget.