Year in Review 2019: The Birth of Mesa Salvaje

This year has been unlike any other in my life. KC and I successfully opened our first gastronomic establishment, a dream years in the making; I became a parent to a perfect dog; I travelled less than in any other year of my life and probably watched less TV and movies than ever before; two of my best and oldest friends got engaged to each other, one of whom was my first close friend to be diagnosed with cancer, aged 27. As I reflect on where I am today (personally and professionally) I feel an immense amount of pride in what we have accomplished, and as I take a few days to truly unwind and recover, I can’t help but feel both excitement and confidence in what is to come.

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I’m not really sure I can divide this year in review neatly into highlights and areas for improvement as I have in years past. Mesa Salvaje has been an all consuming endeavor to the point where (almost) my entire year can be reviewed through the lens of what happened with the shop. Instead, I’ll start off by reviewing how our goals in opening Mesa Salvaje have stacked up with the reality, and reflect on what I’ve learned along the way.

 

The Rationale and The Reality behind Mesa Salvaje (the phrases in bold I wrote shortly after opening the shop in Feb 2019):

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  • Make an impact against climate change by showing how good vegetarian food can be and working towards zero waste – spread best habits. The urge to do something tangible to change habits and reduce both our own carbon footprint and that of others was the #1 reason Mesa Salvaje opened in 2019 (rather than, say, 2040). We know that our impact remains inconsequential on a planetary scale, but we’ve taken the attitude that if we (using the perjorative we) don’t take immediate action and work to change the status quo, who will? Millenials have an easy enough excuse to continue with the status quo – Boomers are to blame for the emmissions, future generations are to bear the brunt of the impact. Mesa Salvaje has succeeded in this area – our food is a hit and we have both a loyal customer base, of whom maybe 75% are not vegetarian, and new customers who may enter looking for a coffee but walk away discovering how good a falafel burger can be.
  • Try and experiment with the business model of coffee shops/restaurants – try and prove on a small scale that I can be innovative. We haven’t really innovated on the business model of a coffee shop/restaurant, although I do feel that we are introducing the concept of an “all-day cafe” to Bogota in a way that I haven’t seen implemented elsewhere.
  • Build a lifestyle that allows me to work with KC and let her flourish. KC is one of the most brilliant people I know, and I know a lot of brilliant people. This year she has shown her brilliance not only in the kitchen, but also in her people management and motivation skills. Spending time working alongside her and discussing business problems and opportunities is my favorite thing about this whole project.
  • Build a personal lifestyle that is sustainable, unlike when we worked at JPM/Wavemaker. Our personal life is 95% walking or cycling in Bogota, with the very occasional Uber. We live in a building that doesn’t need heating for the Bogota climate. We eat vegetarian unless we choose to enjoy a fresh and sustainably caught/farmed fish. We compost all of our organic waste. We try and live zero waste and we’re 80% of the way there. We flew 1 long haul flight this year, and 2 short haul flights. We could be better, but I don’t feel guilty about the way we live today, as I sometimes did in NYC. It feels fantastic to live the way we do.
  • Feel invested in the community we live and work in, and become more of a stakeholder than previously in Williamsburg. Occasionally we feel a little bit isolated in Bogota – as the bosses we spend all day with employees rather than coworkers, which makes a difference no matter how friendly we are with each other. However, it is an amazing feeling to walk around our neighborhood and have people recognize and greet you in the street – customers, neighbors, other local business owners. Next year we want to push this further, offering community-wide services (maybe compost collection?) outside of our role as small business owners in the community.
  • Become more antifragile – more day-to-day volatility in income/benefits, but reduced fragility that a single event (e.g. firing) could leave us on the streets. Mesa Salvaje was profitable for the last 6 months of operation, and more or less breakeven over the year as a whole. This far exceeded our expectations and we are very excited to see how much more we can grow in our existing location with our current capacity in terms of staff and space. In April we nearly broke even and I figured that we weren’t going to grow much more than that, and started to plot our next project that could actually make money. Since then, however, monthly sales grew by more than 40% while costs only increased an additional 10%, and in November we actually made a decent chunk of change. We’re planning on making a few investments in expanding our capacity to start the new year, and hope we can then double down on what seems to be working for us and hopefully reaping the rewards before we think about what’s next. Are we more antifragile today than when working in the US? Probably not quite yet, but we’ll revisit this next year and hopefully reflect that this year put us on that path.
  • Help Colombians drink and enjoy the best Colombian coffee. With maybe 1 or 2 exceptional exceptions, the best coffees of my life have been consumed this year in Mesa Salvaje. It is ridiculous how good coffee can be when farmers, roasters, and baristas treat the product with the care and curiosity it deserves. We are succeeding in this regard – we are often able to get Colombians who ask for a “tinto” (a small mug of shitty coffee loaded with sugar that everyone here drinks) to try our specialty coffees and realize that it’s not bitter. We knew we were going to have the best coffee in the neighborhood, but it’s been nice to be recognized as such by various frequent customers for whom the quality of the coffee is an important part of our appeal.
  • See if we can learn about management in a small business context to help avoid future mistakes when the stakes are potentially more serious. I have referred to running Mesa Salvaje as my “real-world MBA”, and I genuinely think the lessons I’ve learned about my own management style and how to not just devise but to actually implement new ideas into a business are an invaluable part of this experience. My biggest problems have been dealing with staff who I deem are acting/responding to feedback irrationally. I’m learning about establishing boundaries related to team culture – where it is necessary to draw a line with a staff member who takes things to far, and on the other hand where my involvement as a boss should be limited.
  • Get very tangible feedback on how I’m doing in my endeavors instead of intangible feedback. I have said this multiple times before, but my favorite part of my old job in credit risk was trying to poke holes in a company’s business strategy and see how management think about risks and whether they have measures they can take to address those risks. At Mesa Salvaje I get to do the same for our own business. We have tons of different types of risks – daily risks such as suppliers failing to deliver, staff not showing up or doing a poor job, service being slow while we’re busy, the internet going out, customers not understanding our value proposition etc… and more existential risks such as sanitation requirements, the risk of theft, competitors undercutting us, the risk of an earthquake or other act of god etc… – and it is my day-to-day job to think about how how we manage those risks and have a plan to mitigate them. I get feedback almost immediately on whether changes we make are working or unpopular – both anecdotally and through sales numbers – and I love it. I hope I can spend more time directing the ship in the year to come, rather than spending lots of time below deck patching up the holes to keep us afloat.
  • Create a community space that can be a “platform” ie. used and appreciated by other people for their own purposes. We have done some super cool events at our space in partnership with other organizations and local businesses. HAMBRE, our food fair, has been a hit over 2 versions with 10+ vendors. Hoping to build on this next year.

What I’ve learned outside of the Mesa Salvaje Thesis:

  • Patience + Consistency lend themselves to compunding effects i.e. if you do something well and you keep doing it well for a long enough time, good things will happen slowly but surely. Doing things consistently well, however, is exhausting and requires constant input of energy and focus. The upside is that a flywheel in motion is hard to stop, and over time good practices become habit and each marginal improvement builds upon the prior improvement until you have established a genuine competitive advantage. The downside is that the positive growth is hard to see on a day to day basis and it can often feel like exerting energy just to keep one’s head above water.
  • Inertia is real. Once a way of doing things has been established and expectations set, getting anything changed requires an amount of concerted mental and physical effort that is uncorrelated with the size of the change you are looking to make. Expanding our menu in November required a herculean effort, and getting members of staff to change the way they do certain tasks might take 50+ reminders. If possible, it is better to start things off in the “right” way than to start it off and hope to change along the way, although that said it is hard to know what the “right” way is until you are up and running. But it is useful
  • People’s lives are incredibly complex, and stability is fragile. What someone brings to their job everyday is a culmination of their past experiences, their passions, their aspirations, their worries, the state of their relationships, the point in which they see themselves in their own life, their physical wellbeing, their mental stability, and more. This year I have heard an awful lot of stories from staff members about things that I can only lament without recounting. None of our staff live in poverty and all of them are physically healthy, but that doesn’t mean that their lives outside of work aren’t full of family and relationship drama, tensions, unanticipated and unwelcome events, sicknesses, debts, and more. I feel as though this year for the first time I have been given just a glimpse of what it entails to live a life without the privelege of obtaining a degree from a reputable university in a land of plenty such as the UK. We feel like we have six employees who are able to live and work in dignity as employees of Mesa Salvaje, but it doesn’t mean it’s easy.
  • Building a business from scratch with no prior experience isn’t easy, but it’s not impossible. Obviously KC and I aren’t totally dumb or naive, but the fact that we have managed to open a restaurant successfully with no experience as a commercial chef, barista, or restaurant administrator is still a feat which impresses me. A restaurant isn’t rocket science, but it is still an impressively complex operation in  logistics and service. You need to offer something that resonates with a sufficiently sized customer base in order to cover all your fixed costs, and then ensure you have the capacity to serve that customer base without excess waste. It isn’t necessarily a business where simply throwing more money at a problem can automatically solve it. We’re far from perfect and I think we have a good amount of room to grow from here, but to date we have somehow threaded the needle. Our inexperience might be to our advantage as we have hired staff with a lot of experience in coffee shops and commercial experience, and have actually taken their advice. Now that I know that starting a business of this nature is not impossible, I feel excited and confident about future expansion opportunities.

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Life outside of Mesa Salvaje:

My social life was very limited this year as we poured all of our energy into building the shop. There were many nights where we were so exhausted that it took all our energy to start the serviette wash and climb into bed. But over the course of the year we were able to enjoy a few special moments with friends that helped us unwind and enjoy life outside of Mesa Salvaje.

Rose: The most important moment of which was when we headed to the UK in August/September to spend quality time with Tom and Rose. Her breaking of the news of her diagnosis in July shook me out of the tunnel vision mindset I had inhabited since the shop opened in January. I had always been of the mindset that we have so. much. time. on this planet, but when your best friend is diagnosed with brain cancer aged 27, the reality of our own mortality really makes itself known. KC and I flew home and spent six days driving around the UK to take Tom and Rose back to Porthdinallaen for 36 hours after an #impossibleroadtrip, 48 hours in Knutsford with day trips to both Liverpool (Wiggy and Beth Pennington) and Manchester City Center (Clarkey), then down in London to spend more time with Tom and Rose, as well as a few other cameos with Scott, Hannah, and Chunch. The trip was too short but it was oh so necessary, and I intend on spending more time with the ones I love in 2020. I love those guys so much, and I’m getting emotional just thinking about them as I write this from Medellin.

Pola: The other extremely important event that happened outside of the shop this year was the adoption of our baby girl, Pola, on Scott’s birthday in November. I knew we were getting close to being in a position to adopt a dog, but had anticipated it as a 2020 event. Fate happened, though, and KC saw a picture of a perfect angel on Instagram, reached out, and within two weeks we had welcomed Pola bear into our home and our hearts. I had my doubts before her arrival, but when she walked through our door my heart melted and I have never fallen in love with anyone so quickly (sorry, KC). I’m sure there will be many challenges to having a dog while running a 1 year old restaurant, but 6 weeks after her arrival I couldn’t be happier with our little family.

Family: very importantly, there seems to have been some thawing of the ice within my family this year after multiple years of tension. I credit my parents for maybe being a little more accepting of my life choices, because I still can’t pretend as though I have moved closer to their way of viewing the world. We saw each other three times this year after a surprise visit in February and a pitstop on our whirlwind tour of the UK, and their visit to Bogota for New Year’s. I love my family so much, and I’m looking forward to this trend continuing into the new decade!

Investing: Good year for us, and basically anyone else who had money in the market! Bitcoin is up, Tesla is up, and I’m as bullish as ever on both of them. Our only bad investment was in Softbank that has been bruised from the WeWork debacle and probles with Vision Fund investments, but that was a pretty small piece of the portfolio. I’m feeling good about our investments as our safety net, though I’m not sure what I’d want to sell if another opportunity arose that required access to liquid capital.

 

What I’m excited about in 2020:

I have much to be excited about heading into the New Year. I can’t wait to celebrate the 1 year MS anniversary on January 15th, and invest in the future of our coffee, food, and community programs. I want to be a destination for coffee in Bogota, recognized as one of the best plant-based restaurants in the city, and to build an insane customer loyalty program that rewards the customers that make us the success we are in an unusually generous manner. I see potential for us grow grow our weekly sales goal by 50%+, and as a result will likely invest in growing the team and reinvesting in equipment to help us improve our capacity.

I also have multiple personal goals in 2020. 2019 had one goal that superceded everything else, but this year I want to return to investing in myself and expand my life in Colombia outside the 3 block radius between my apartment and the shop. Here are a few things I’m hoping to do this year:

  • Return to NYC, Baltimore, and upstate (Ryan’s farm?/ camping trip?) in Early Summer
  • Eurotrip to the UK, Brussels (hi Gabi!) and maybe Copenhagen/Malmo/Stockholm in the late Summer
  • Hopefully see some more of Colombia: Choco, Cali, and San Agustin, multiple 2/3 day trips with friends locally, a coffee trip with a conocido to a favorite region
  • Run the Bogota Half Marathon – 26th July
  • Write 26 posts for Ross Rambles
  • Read 12 books inc. 1 or 2 in Spanish
  • Podcast with Jack?
  • Have a “strategy”day bi-monthly where I brainstorm with conocidos
  • play tennis semi-frequently
  • Actively support and become involved with both climate iniciatives and the crypto community in Bogotá
  • Some other big personal goals… :)

Content:

Books: I read some great fiction this year. I completed the Broken Earth Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin at the beginning of the year (reading books 2 and 3 – Stone Sky and The Obelisk Gate, and highly, highly recommend it. I love the worlds she built and the powerful female-led character development. She blended fantasy with human emotion perfectly and I can’t recommend the series highly enough. My second favorite book this year was Overstory by Richard Powers, a book that spoke to the beauty and power and mystery of trees and forests through a narrative that weaves together people of very different backgrounds – it is mindblowing how much we only recently discovered about how trees live and communicate with one another, and Powers writes about it beautifully. I also absolutely loved the beautiful writing in And The Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini, the narrative structure of Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, and the humor in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Chronicles of a Death Foretold. I’m really happy that my reading reflected a more diverse background of writers, and the stories themselves were pretty diverse. I also read The Unihabitable Earth  by David Wallace-Wells, a painful but necessary read about what is going to happen if we continue on the trajectory we’re on right now. I started but found myself unable to get into Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, and intend on re-picking up Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom when I am ready to dive back into stories of pre/post civil-war America. I also started The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoyevsky in December, and immediately remembered why he is one of, if not my favorite author – his narrative voice is brilliant.

Podcasts: Not too much change here, although I continue to love the podcast format. The Energy Gang and The Ezra Klein Show continue to be my favorite podcasts. Invest Like The Best with Patrick O’Shaughnessy often provides thought provoking conversations, as does The Knowledge Project from Farnam Street. My favorite podcast episodes of the year were all 5 episodes of Ezra’s Climate Change series, although the highlight was: How to Solve Climate Change and Make Life More Awesome with Saul Griffith , and The Daily’s 3 part ministory about a “Jungle Prince” in India.

TV/Movies/Music: Not too much to report here. KC and I barely watched TV over the past year, excepting the occasional rerun of Would I Lie to You or a Netflix Stand Up special. I have enjoyed getting to know more Colombian classic salsa and some other spanish rock songs, but that’s about it.

Food: One of the best parts about opening a restaurant is becoming friends with other chefs who are doing interesting/exciting things. KC and I recently reaffirmed that our 3 favorite restaurants in Bogota are Mesa Franca, Prudencia, and Salvo Patria, but I couldn’t tell you in which order – each time we eat at one we remark “this might be the best one yet!”. I am slightly sad to report that two of Bogota’s entrants onto the Latam Top 50 Restaurants list, El Chato and Harry Sasson, both disappointed KC and I. We love Emilia Grace, Elektra, Canasto, El Pantera, Insurgentes, Santa Maria pizza, Arbol de Pan, and De Forma.

What else?

  • I’m excited about an Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders victory in November. I’m #TeamWarren – she’s an incredible candidate with all the courage, deeply-held values, and charisma required to be an effective president, and she wields a progressive policy platform informed by experts I know and respect that is both ambitious and doable. If Elizabeth wins the nomination I’d love for her to choose Andrew Gillum, Stacey Abrams, or Julian Castro as her running mate. They represent the future of the Democratic Party. If Elizabeth doesn’t win the nomination I hope Bernie takes it. Both of them can stand up to and beat the bully that is Trump, and both of them are planning on addressing Climate Change and Wealth Inequality – the twin evils that threaten the world we know.
  • I think Bitcoin will hit a new all-time high this year.
  • I think Brexit happens and people spend time looking for the upside, but fail to recognize that Britain’s place in the world will be greatly diminished. I am expecting that Britain may start to get bullied around in geopolitics by the US, the EU, and by China. Not excited about the future of my homeland.
  • I expect at least 5 of my good friends to get engaged.
I hope you’re as excited about 2020 as I am!
Happy New Year.
Rambler-in-Chief

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