As I sit here reflecting on the strangest year of my life I feel like the game has changed and we are entering a new era of world history from which there will emerge new winners and losers. After 20 years in which we have put a mobile phone in everyone’s hand and Climate Change has accelerated from future problem to today’s problem, the emergence of COVID-19 has created abrupt new borders, alliances, and cultural change that will have consequences over the coming years and decades. This is where the dynamics of the 21st century will really start to play out, and politics, business, and society will never be the same. Rationally, I am willing to embrace that uncertainty and feel better prepared than most. Emotionally, I feel like I need to escape for six months just to recover from the stress of 2020 and mentally prepare myself for what is to come.
With the benefit of hindsight, I think 2020 was ultimately a good year for me professionally, but the emotional toll will leave a scar that may never fully heal. I leave 2020 with 2 restaurants open and profitable and a 3rd on the way, a team of 14 full time employees, an encyclopedic knowledge of the best ways to cycle around Bogota, a fiancé and a dog, 2 electric bikes, a growing art collection, and a higher liquid net worth than ever before. I also leave 2020 feeling older and more serious, having missed some golden opportunities, close to feeling burned out, and anxious that I am not on a sustainable path to long term success/contentment.
I say up front that I need to make some serious changes to my life in 2021, particularly work-life balance, or my 2021 year in review will not be pretty. But that is for next year. Let’s reflect on this year:
COVID & Mesa Salvaje – in what feels like an eternity ago, we celebrated Mesa Salvaje’s 1 year anniversary on my birthday, January 15th 2020. It was incredibly busy day and it was revelatory for me as it became very apparent that Mesa Salvaje meant a lot to many people, not just us. We celebrated with 50-60 people on the terrace (including Chris White and crew who flew down from NYC for the occasion) and it marked the start of an incredible period of growth for us. From November 2019 to March 2020 weekly sales grew 75% and it became very apparent that Mesa Salvaje could be a very successful commercial operation. We closed on March 15th following the single best week of sales in our history (in which we participated in Bogota’s “vegan burger master”, receiving incredible comments for KC’s beet/lentil creation) anticipating up to a month or two of restricted service.
Obviously the pandemic surpassed any and all expectations and we didn’t finally reopen to the public until September. After closing completely for 2 weeks we started our Domicilio operation (delivery), initially with just KC, Ivan (our head cook), and I. What began as a super limited operation with me cycling around the city on my bike delivering 12-20 lunches per day developed into a sophisticated and surprisingly successful delivery operation which has outlived the quarantine and which I intend to double down on in 2021. The strategy behind our success lay in the daily changing menu and the affordability that rewarded customers with better prices for eating Mesa Salvaje 3 or 5 times per week (a Suscription Salvaje). Ordering delivery that isn’t on the platforms can be a pain for customers the first time they order, but very straightforward and simple if they are repeating. We have a spreadsheet with more than 105 customers who have ordered sufficiently frequently to warrant a line with their preferences/quirks noted, and a Whatsapp group with 230 members who are happy receiving a message from us every day with our daily menu. Just before we reopened to the public we were averaging 45 lunches per day and frequently exceeding 60 lunches. That’s a legit operation!
I started off as our delivery boy and even as the team returned to service I continued delivering 20+ lunches per day by bike, all over the city. I rented an electric bike and subsequently bought my own. I enjoyed the challenge of organizing and optimizing routes for delivery and then executing it, cycling as fast as possible all over the city. In another life I’d be very happy as a delivery guy on my electric bike. It forces me to live in the present and focus, and I love discovering new neighborhoods or arriving at a known address quicker than ever. We also used the extra time we had to launch our own coffee brand, Diagonal 55, using a white label roaster – something I think has a ton of potential that we haven’t fully capitalized on yet – and I extended a loan to two staff members to help them launch their own clothes brand with coffee designs targeted at Baristas (which I doubt will extend beyond their immediate circle of friends but hopefully will be a great lesson in business for them).
More important than the operation itself was the challenge presented to our philosophy as business owners, the culture we had worked hard to build, and the emotional and physical toll the virus imposed. Had we known with hindsight the duration of the lockdown, we might not have been so gung-ho in promising all our staff that they would keep their jobs, but we committed to it and I can say that it is the single thing I am most proud of over the past 12 months. Our philosophy of being 100% committed to the wellbeing of our team was tested in a way we never could have predicted, and we rose to the challenge. I feel like that act alone helped to solidify how our team culture is different to other restaurants and will continue to pay dividends in the years to come. COVID hit us – one morning Julian exclaimed that he couldn’t taste the espresso, and we took immediate action to get the whole team tested, finding out two days later to our surprise that KC had also tested positive (while weirdly, I remained negative). We spent 2 weeks in quarantine while the staff managed the restaurant, a strange time in which the staff really stepped up and ran the show. Over the course of the year we had 4 confirmed cases and 1 more suspected case in our team, and each time everyone stepped up to make sure the infected members could fully recover for 2 weeks while we covered for them.
Harder than the physical toll for me was the emotional toll. We were all victims to uncertainty and stress caused by the virus, but I decided that my role last year would be to shoulder as much of the responsibility and stress as possible, reducing that inflicted upon KC and the staff. I really, really suffered as a result. Part of it was selfish – I didn’t want to see wasted everything we’d worked so hard to build in the first year ruined by external factors, and I was willing to sacrifice my personal life and personal savings to see that that didn’t happen – but regardless, it has left its mark. I have never experienced the levels of stress I had in May/June/July – self-doubting our strategy, questioning whether we should be doubling down or cutting back, worrying that we weren’t receiving enough orders and then worrying how we would efficiently supply all the orders we had. I worked everyday from March 30th until I visited the UK in October, and I suffered mentally from burn out and general fatigue. My temper shortened and I became snappy and unreasonably frustrated with KC and staff for every little thing that I didn’t agree with. The only thing that helped me distinguish the passage of time was the weekly Taco Fridays I shared with James at the apartment, which lasted for more than 20 weeks. I struggled to make meaningful connections with the new people who came into our life this year which frustrated KC and became a point of ongoing tension. I was unable to empathize with other people’s personal situations as I was so wrapped up in my own. I became more serious and less able to enjoy a joke or be silly. For the past two months I have been telling people that 2020 was the year in which I lost my youth. I have been unable to think creatively or even have anything more than a superficial conversation with people. Writing this reiterates what I have known for a while – recovering what makes Ross Garlick, Ross Garlick, has to be my top priority for 2021.
Mesa Salvaje returned to limited service on September 2nd and full service two weeks later (with tables only available on our terrace and with service from 9am-6pm instead of 8am-9pm pre-pandemic), while maintaining the availability for delivery. It became clear very quickly that we were going to do very well, and that our constraining factor was the limitations of our staff and space. From September to December we grew like a weed, with November the best sales month in our history (52mm cop) and the second week of December the single best sales week since we opened (16.1mm cop). I heard similar stories from other restaurant owners who had made it through the pandemic – sales were suddenly amazing as people who left their homes were more willing than ever to open their wallets – but I also feel that Mesa Salvaje grew idiosyncratically because of the type/quality of food we were offering, our attentive service and adherence of biosecurity protocols on an open air terrace, and the benefits accrued to us via excellent domicilios through the quarantine which had expanded the size of our customer base (and instagram following). We made good money in October and November and feel ready to reinvest in the business in order to meet expected demand in the year to come, and hopefully (finally) achieve profit over the course of a whole year!
Pizza Paraiso & Halita – These were both completely unexpected at the beginning of the year, but feel like the silver linings that have me excited about 2021. We bought and reopened the best New York style pizzeria in Bogota, and are close to opening a speakeasy fine-dining project in the space upstairs. Both places and projects are So. Frickin’. Cool. I could never have created a pizzeria with the retro vibes that infuse Pizza Paraiso, and I definitely couldn’t have created a private dining space that feels equal parts decadent and understated. I’ll talk shortly about how I missed some golden investment opportunities this year, but I feel like these were two investments I won’t regret.
Pizza Paraiso was already one of our top three pizza spots in Bogota at the start of the year, and I mentioned it as a place doing something interesting in my Bogota in 2020 piece. During the lockdown we ordered Paraiso more than any other pizza and were shocked to hear that they were closing on May 31st (we coincidentally ordered pizza that night with no idea that it was their last service). A month or so went by until we heard that they were selling the restaurant, and at the time I had been toying with various ideas: opening a gourment ice cream shop, a Delivery-Only economic veggie brand called “Senor Ajo”, or a Mesa Salvaje to-go location. But the location, the product, the turnkey nature of the business, and ultimately the price, convinced me that this was the opportunity we had been waiting for. The huge underutilized upstairs space that I didn’t know existed until I visited to check out the space was the final nail in the coffin that sealed the deal. I wrote a note with a Pizza Paraiso “thesis“, but it wasn’t such a complicated decision in the end.
After beginning negotiations in early July we finalized the purchase on Sep 19th and opened to the public on Oct 20th, 2020. We started slower than I would have hoped but ended December with a >6mm cop sales week which is a more-than-breakeven sales level and sets us up to really get back in business in the new year. I’d be remiss not to at least touch upon the chaos I was thrown into by the administrator I’d hired to run the pizza operation on a day-to-day basis, who 8 weeks after joining confided that he had been sleeping with the cashier who had been with us for 5 weeks and she was now pregnant. Neither of them remain with the organization and the month before Christmas was a crazy time in which I had to work double-time, constantly running back and forth between Mesa and Pizza, feeling like I wasn’t giving enough to each of them. I hired a new cashier at the beginning of December and a new administrator is a top priority for 2021.
Halita was born in a beautifully organic manner: at the beginning of the quarantine KC participated in a great project to help avoid food waste, turning hundreds of kilos of perishable raw materials into products with a longer shelf life. She worked with a few chefs at the beginning who weren’t working, but quickly struck up a relationship with Santiago Abaunza Parra. Santi is only 22 but has 6 years of experience in some of Bogota’s best restaurants, and his passion for cooking is greater than in anyone I’ve ever met. KC saw an opportunity to give Santi the space he needed to be creative and arranged to have a few dinners at Mesa Salvaje every Friday night with her good friend Andrea. The concept really began to snowball after word got out about these dinners and other people started clamoring for one (no restaurants were open and these dinners were able to provide an escape from the grim reality of quarantine life). KC and Santi were creating an experience unlike any other that existed in Bogota, and I was party to that experience when I asked Santi to cook an extra special dinner for KC and I on the night I proposed to her, June 7th 2020. It was easily the best meal of the year.
What I had originally thought to be a beautiful pandemic project solidified into a new permanent venture in July/August when KC, Santi, and Jesus (another chef who had been working with Santi on some of the Halita dinners) spent 2 weeks quarantining together and developing the real core values and philosophy of Halita. Its core value is “supplying joy”, infusing the 4 or 5 course dinner with personality and fun and constant interaction with the chefs. The project has had it’s own challenges – it’s both hard and necessary to ride the emotional rollercoaster when dealing with true chefs if you want to bring something truly new and creative into the world – but I’m so excited to see what happens when the project really launches in late January/early Feb.
Rose – this is by far the hardest piece of my year end review to write about, partially because I still struggle to put words to the emotions I feel. In early December I lost one of my best friends after Rose Acton passed away due to her brain tumor, for which she had been receiving treatment for 18 months. Rose was an incredible woman – every time I saw or spoke to her since we graduated high school I was more and more impressed at who she was becoming, a far cry from the 16 year old who I used to drive to school who hadn’t even woken up when I arrived at her house at 7.30am. She balanced ambition with pragmatism and work-life and personal-life better than anyone else I know. I will always remember conversations we had about our careers and life choices while staying in her wonderful Vauxhall apartment; and I will always treasure the memories we have from our teenage years when Rose’s independence always encouraged me to push my comfort zone and live in the moment. Some of my best teenage memories occurred with, and thanks to, Rose.
I visited home in October following a call from Tom that it is basically now or never (which was an adventure with flights being canceled and the UK in between lockdowns, and a last minute unscheduled 36 hour layover in CDMX arranged). I’m so grateful that he made that call – I was able to spend quality time with Rose while she was still able to hold a conversation, and say goodbye to my friend in person. By that point she wasn’t really the brilliant Rose I knew, but she still shined through with her plans to write a book and develop a “cancer concierge” service amongst other plans. She was taken from us just as she was hitting her stride, and her death is the ultimate life lesson that I probably don’t have as much time as I have generally taken for granted, and that it is important to not get bogged down in day-to-day problems and instead keep an eye on the bigger picture. I won’t let Rose down.
KC – this is the first time I have written a section specifically about KC since I have been doing year in reviews. After being in complete sync for at least the last three years, this was the year in which KC and I began new projects independent of each other that will take us in slightly different directions. At times we’ve had tensions and differences of opinion that have left me feeling very lonely, going to bed alone on many occasions while KC worked her Halita dinners until the early hours of the morning, with me leaving her to sleep in while I go to Mesa to work. The important thing is that we both recognized that this year stretched us both more than ever before, probably beyond any healthy limit, and in the year to come need to spend time together, outside the “office” environment, and take care of ourselves more than we have been doing. Our morning routine has always been super important to us and we completely lost it in 2020. We have been together 9 years now and I think we have been taking each other for granted for at least 18 months. Fortunately I think this year end holiday is helping us recognize how far we’d gone and take steps to address it.
I proposed to KC on June 7th and she said yes. It wasn’t really a surprise for either of us, but it was important step to reaffirm to each other that we are life partners. Proposing in the space we had built together and sharing an incredible, personalized meal together cooked by Santi was the highlight of the pandemic and a symbolic way to commit ourselves to each other and the values we hold dear for the rest of our lives. We intend on getting married in September 2022 in Colombia (if you’ve made it this far reading this post, you’re likely on the guest list that we are yet to send out), and I believe that overcoming challenges like those we’ve faced this year will set us up for life.
E-Bikes and Art – two standout highlights of this year outside of the business have been my use and purchase of e-bikes, and my growing collection of Colombian Street Art which is really starting to justify the word “collection”.
I first started idolizing e-bikes as a true transportation alternative after trying a Riide bike at a Compass conference in 2014, and evangelizing them after renting and riding a JUMP bike around San Francisco in early 2018. In 2020 I first dipped my toes in the water by renting a MUVO bike by the month at the beginning of the pandemic to help with deliveries, and I ended the year with a bang, buying two GoGreen e-bikes for the equivalent of $600 a piece to help deliver pizzas to customers and help me get from A to B. We had a few technical issues at the beginning but think they are resolved now, and since buying my e-bike in late October I have already put over 1,000km on the bike. I cruise up Bogota’s steep hills barely breaking a sweat, and delivered pizza to the northern extreme of the city in under 30 mins. I love them and can’t recommend an e-bike enough to anyone and everyone. I have a feeling my collection may grow…
This year KC and I put our money where our mouths are to support Colombian artists whom we love. This year we added pieces from S.Cifu, Sagauno, Tinta Del Rio, Diana Paz, Budas, and JGV to last year’s works from Stinkfish and Franco. We’re no longer afraid to buy (at the right price) when we love a piece, confident that we will hold and appreciate these pieces for a long time, supporting Colombian and Venezuelan talent. There may even be a long term financial interest in the collection, but for now we’re happy to just fills our walls with the best of Colombian street art culture. I imagine the collection will grow in the new year.
Investing – 2020 was both the best and worst year of my investing life. A year ago I wrote “Bitcoin is up, Tesla is up, and I’m as bullish as ever on both of them.” But clearly I wasn’t ready for what was to come in 2020. Tesla ended 2020 up a ridiculous 720%, and Bitcoin ended 2020 up 309%.
2020 was the best year of my investing life because my net worth increased in absolute terms more than any other year in my life. Not only did I have significant wins with Tesla and Bitcoin, I also made material gains with Amazon, Softbank, Spotify and other smaller bets. I’m incredibly grateful as it meant that I wasn’t overly concerned about my immediate financial situation at the height of the lockdown. But 2020 was the worst year of my investing life because I sold all of my Tesla shares at an average of $700 per share… pre-split. I missed a 6x return from there. I sold a material amount of bitcoin at prices much lower than they are at today. I sold shares in Sunrun and missed a 5x return, I sold an Uber option at a tiny profit that today would be worth a material amount of money, and I didn’t buy Square or Shopify until the very end of the year after watching and waiting for the right time to buy, missing huge gains in the process. 2020 was a year in which I learned that the market can be exuberant even when the reality in the world is grim; and when I had the lesson reiterated to me that “There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.”
I personally feel as though the inflation of financial asset prices is the result of quantitative easing and will likely continue while the Fed remains so reluctant to raise rates, but is why I’m even more bullish on bitcoin as a “hard money” that should prosper relative to everything priced in dollars. Who knows what will happen in 2021? I haven’t found a single replacement to Tesla that fills me with as much conviction as I’ve had with Elon over the past few years. But I’m sure it’ll be interesting.
Family – the pandemic has put me in touch with my family more than at anytime in the last decade, and that is a silver lining I am grateful for. The pandemic provided both the time and space for me to reconnect with them, and something fresh to talk about on a daily basis that I often struggle. My visit to see Rose also provided me with the first quality time I’ve spent with my family in a long time, and I appreciated them more than ever (although over the course of a week I still managed to get into a few arguments… not sure how Scott has coped throughout the longggg lockdowns in the UK!).
Travel – a short trip home and a 10 day roadtrip to the Caribbean coast were all the traveling I did in 2020. Grateful for both trips allowing me to disconnect from the day-to-day reality and focus on the bigger picture. Minca, a 30 minute drive up in the mountains from Santa Marta on the Caribbean coast, was stunning and is an area I’d love to visit again if I need some R&R.
What I’m excited about in 2021
- Bitcoin & Ethereum because… moon? mars? Basically since I’ve been writing this year in review BTC has doubled…
- Mesa Salvaje finally making profit over a whole year, or at least becoming more professional to the point that my operation feels as legit as any restaurant/coffee operation I respect/have looked up to
- Hiring an administrator for Pizza Paraiso, and participating in some food fairs and events
- Seeing KC launch Halita
- Seeing friends in person (hopefully with a trip to the US and another to Europe!!)
- Seeing more SpaceX progress with Starship and Falcon Heavy. Starlink internet could be a gamechanger and particularly noteworthy as people may look to work from super remote locations.
- Waiting for the proliferation of e-bikes and micromobility solutions to fill the cycle lanes throughout Bogota (and across the world)
- Seeing whatever outputs come from focusing more on myself (not putting any pressure on me to write X articles or run X miles)
- Wedding planning?! I doubt we’ll do this conventionally, but it should still be interesting and… hopefully…fun?
- Some form of experimentation with UBI on a national scale, initially as a COVID response but ultimately as a new form of safety net that will eventually be embraced by society.
- Efforts to combat climate change that are equitable
Content & Food
Books: At the beginning of the lockdown I read some great sci-fi – Exhilations by Ted Chiang and The Three Body Problem by Liu Cixin are both near the top of my sci-fi favorites alongside The Broken Earth Trilogy and The Foundation Series. I loved the passion evident in Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life (I didn’t know you could eloquently write about different waves in so many different ways!!!) and the lesson that it’s OK to wander through life while you are young – we only have one life so it might as well be well lived. Then I read some books that kind of disappointed me, The City We Became by NK Jemisin, and Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell. Both books were fine and enjoyable enough to read, but after my prior experiences with the authors I had higher expectations. But then I read probably my favorite book of the year, The House Of Spirits by Isabel Allende. The epic story follows three generations of a Chilean family as the country evolves from an agrarian society full of mysticism and magic to a country in political upheaval and revolution. But as with all classics that I have enjoyed, it is written in a way that doesn’t feel heavy – it deals with serious and dark topics but never felt too heavy to read, and the three main female protagonists were absolutely delightful and well written characters. I enjoyed The Psychology of Money by Morgan Housel who is one of my favorite investment/personal finance writers, although it was more of a rehashing of ideas in essays he’s previously written. And I’ve ended the year working my way through The Price of Peace by Zachary Carter, an incredible biography of John Maynard Keynes. I’m only 40% in but my god did this guy live a life. Not since the biography of Benjamin Franklin have I been so fascinated by the totality of a life led by an exceptional albeit flawed human being. Highly recommended.
TV: I started Billions on Netflix just as the quarantine began and immediately started binging it. Seasons 1-3 are some of my favorite TV series bar none. Seasons 4 and 5 were just OK, but still enjoyable. Chuck Rhoades and Bobby Axlerod are incredible characters who go head-to-head over financial battles that are actually well thought out and realistic. I started watching Succession afterwards and found it didn’t have the same intensity of rivalry that makes a show about business worth watching. My favorite TV of the year, however, was The Last Dance, the Michael Jordan documentary on Netflix. I only vaguely knew about MJ’s career and the documentary was so incredible in the way it illustrated just how and why this guy is the greatest of all time. His intensity and desire to win is unparalleled, and the story that accompanies his rise to greatness is just as compelling. An incredible story, incredibly well told. It was a beautiful thing to be watching the series as I watched my Miami Heat team defy all odds to make it to the NBA finals and push Lebron and the Lakers all the way before eventually succumbing. Basketball is a beautiful sport.
Podcasts: The Ezra Klein Show ended at the end of the year which made me sad, although in reality I didn’t listen to as many episodes this year. The Energy Gang remains as good as ever, and I feel like Patrick O’Shaugnessy has really stepped up his game with some great Invest Like The Best interviews with my favorites being those with Nick Kokonas, Matt Ball, Charlie Songhurst, Tobi Lutke, and Daniel Ek (the last two of which directly led to my investments in Spotify and Shopify). Revision History was back and even though I thought this year’s season was a bit hit or miss, the four-part episode on Curtis LeMay and the firebombing of Tokyo in WWII was left indelibly ingrained on my mind. My favorite podcast episode of the year, however, was this interview on The Knowledge Project with Chamath Palihapitiya. I feel like his message about finding time and space to talk to someone is very much resonating with me at the moment.
Food: There were only three noteworthy meals in 2020 – my engagement dinner with KC, and our long lunch at Prudencia in November, spent in the company of Chef Mario, and a sandwich made by Santiago and Jesus in lockdown with smoked mackarel. Food at its best can connect people to each other and the natural world like nothing else. It can be magical, and everyone deserves to try magical food, not just good food. Santiago and KC have that potential, and Mario already has it. That sandwich was magical.
Thanks for reading!
Let’s see what this year brings!
Happy 2021 :)