We have reached the end of the beginning. Or the beginning of the end. This year, multiple factors have led me to believe that my time in Colombia is likely coming to an end, and the next chapter may be about to start.
At the end of 2021 I gave myself a year to live life again without starting new business endeavors or worrying too much about where I wanted to be or what I wanted to do in life.
Ultimately though, while 2022 has been a year of many memorable peaks, the overall trajectory has been flatlining or even downward, and it is time for that to change.
Isolation is the word I keep coming back to as I think about the year. As the only owner of Pizza Paraiso which is struggling to maintain consistent profitability, I feel quite lonely and trapped financially. With Mesa Salvaje I feel like I’ve lost the feeling of being at home that I once had as I’ve spent less time there and struggle to maintain a professional relationship with KC as my business partner. My net worth is down substantially due to 3 overlapping factors – both restaurants having margins compressed due to new competition and inflation, crypto getting rekt with no end to this Winter in sight, and tons of money spent personally travelling around the world as weddings and my own nihilism led to many “fuck it” financial decisions. In my personal life I have enjoyed being a single man but the novelty is starting to wear off and I’m yet to find someone with whom I’ve built a real connection that feels like I’m building something more than just a casual relationship.
It is for those reasons that I’m evaluating a major life change in 2023. But that doesn’t mean it was all bad in 2022. I discovered spectacular new places in Colombia on some amazing mini adventures, I witnessed beautiful moments at some of my best friends’ weddings, of which I was lucky enough to be a groomsman at two; I built a cozy new home for myself in Bogota, enjoyed some of Bogota’s best nightlife (including at my own party), ate some of the best food of my life, and I even grew a beard!
Major Themes this Year:
- Tough Macro and Micro environment for Business and Investing
- Roda, Devcon, Pizza Master
- Single Life & Solo living
- Travel & Weddings & Food
2022 started off with an ominous note when Mesa Salvaje was robbed by three men with pistols just one week after reopening for the year and just before our third anniversary. The thieves only robbed the customers on the terrace of 4 phones and a wallet, but we received national press and a visits from the Security Minister looking to make a point about security in Bogota in the run up to the May ’22 Presidential election. We shrugged off the incident as business was good and the first half of the year was characterized by positive but slowing sales growth at both Mesa Salvaje and Pizza Paraiso. By February we had solid, stable teams at both places and I indulged more in my personal life than any moment since our first restaurant’s opening, with trips to Miami, nights out with friends, dates with girls met on Tinder/Bumble, entire mornings dedicated to my wellbeing at home/going on runs, and time dedicated to working with James on his business, Roda, as I diversified my attention.
But throughout the year Colombia suffered from a double hit, feeling both the same inflationary pressures felt throughout the rest of the world with the war in Russia and China’s isolation, as well as a Peso which depreciated more than almost any other major national currency against the Dollar. The Fed’s interest rate hikes made the dollar relatively more attractive and Petro’s ascendancy to the Presidency caused many foreign investors and rich Colombians to run for the exit, fearing another Venezuela-like situation in the country. The peso is ending the year roughly 20% lower against the dollar than at the beginning of 2022 at 4800:1, which drives up the costs of basically everything, especially staples like coffee, dairy products, and wheat products, all of which were up this year by at least 50%.
The second half of the year following my return from Europe was a difficult slog. On top of the business pressures I had to deal with unexpected staff departures as well as 2 cases of stealing from KC’s ex-partner in Halita and my head Pizzero. I had to force Halita out (which thankfully KC was aligned with) and fire my head Pizzero. Later in the year we lost our excellent head of the bar staff at Mesa, partly because of aggressive behavior from a co-worker, who I subsequently had to fire in a very unpleasant and stressful few weeks. I even had to release someone I’d hired to replace the head Pizzero within a month of hiring him because he was drunk on the job, having stolen booze from the Pizzeria. Not ideal. We’ve ended the year with a smaller full-time team at Mesa Salvaje than that which started the year (by one), a sign that not everything goes up and to the right, but I’m glad that we right-sized the ship rather than just enduring losses rather than taking hard decisions.
We also experienced a wave of new competition as Chapinero Alto’s gastronomic boom continued, with new coffee shops, brunch restaurants, and bakeries offering alternatives to our core offering in our immediate vicinity. These openings definitely impacted us, but fortunately by the end of the year sales were starting to rise again so I get the feeling that people are returning to Mesa due to our superior price/quality offering. Fingers crossed we can continue to outperform new entrants that will surely keep coming.
I’m entering 2023 grateful to have survived a really tough environment. Mesa is about to celebrate it’s 4th anniversary, which is an achievement in and of itself, and with each subsequent year in which we survive everything thrown at us, we dig our roots a little deeper and look to continue feeding and caffeinating more people everyday.
Roda, Devcon, Pizza Master
Outside of the day-to-day of the restaurants, I tried to use this year to broaden my professional focus, and I spent the first few months of the year working 1/2 days per week with Roda, a microcredit business that seeks to tap into Defi as a source for funding real world loans to Colombians and Venezuelans, a startup founded by my friend James. It felt good to get back into a different frame of mind, building spreadsheets that helped guide and influence a growing business, and nice to not be “The Boss”. The problem was that my role either required someone full time or a more structured, project-based direction, and I wasn’t able to commit to the level I felt was necessary (especially for no pay at that time), so when I came back from Europe with problems at the restaurants I decided that it was better to relent and encourage James to hire someone full time.
And then there were the two other projects I dedicated myself to in the second half of the year, both of which were critically successful but not so much financially: my Devcon side events and Pizza Master.
Devcon is the biggest crypto conference in the world and this year it finally took place in Bogota after being postponed for 2 years. I felt compelled to organize events to showcase the best of my home, Bogota, to people I have known or followed virtually for years. I successfully organized 2 events, a 75 person Coffee + Web3 event in collaboration with the founder of Azahar Coffee, and a ~120 person “Emerald Hands Carnival” party, as well as hosted brunches and dinners at the restaurants. The main issue was that my events were ticketed and lots of events that week were free (sponsored by crypto companies/protocols), and I discovered that I’m not as good at selling as I hoped I would be. In classic Ross fashion, the events were lauded as successful by the attendees, but I felt like with more prep I could’ve made them better. That said, both events were a lot of fun and good things have come out of them.
Pizza Master was similar in that we didn’t sell enough, and that I focused more on the preparation for the event rather than the promotion. I had been told “you can’t be over-prepared” for the Master competitions, in which Burger joints, sushi restaurants, and pizzerias throughout Colombia pay exorbitant entry fees to participate in a competition where they sell their entry to their customers at a heavily discounted price, with the public voting on the winner. And yet, apparently I was over-prepared. It was still by far our best sales week of the year, almost double our second best week despite the half-priced pizza, but I was prepared for more. There is a separate story to be told about all the things that went wrong that week, and literal blood, sweat, and tears went into making it what it was. I finished that week feeling dejected because despite my very best efforts, the sales didn’t reflect what I had hoped for.
But at least there was a happy ending – on the 20th December as I was boarding my plane to leave for Christmas, we found out that we’d finished in the Top 5 of the competition. It came as a huge surprise and I found myself crying on the plane in what felt like a cathartic release – all that effort hadn’t been in vain, and I had something to show for this year.
I started 2022 determined to shake off the depression that gripped me at the end of 2021, and I did so in a big way: I started the year moving into my new apartment where I began to live by myself for the first time since I was 18. After going on a few dates I started seeing a wonderful girl on and off until June. I knew I wasn’t ready for a real relationship, but she helped me feel good about myself and we had lots of fun nights dancing away and singing until the early hours. There were no Wedding Crasher style hookups despite all the weddings I attended, but I have enjoyed meeting women and feeling the mutual attraction. Dating as a 30 year old seems to be much more enjoyable than I recall as an insecure 18 year old in London!
The novelty has worn off now, and I think I am now open to a real relationship again, but I still feel like I have to sort my own life out and know what I’m doing with myself before I can truly open up to someone else. After a year of living a very bachelor-esque lifestyle in my apt (I spent most of the year without a fridge), I’m trying to sort my apartment out so that I at least have that in order and can then focus on the really important stuff (where, what, how).
Travel & Weddings & Food
Not since school as a 17 year old have I spent as much time travelling as I did in 2022. I was outside of Bogota for more than 2 and a half months this year, with one 5 week Eurotrip and lots of 3-7 day trips. While it may have been partially an act of escapism, it still created many memorable highlights:
- The jacuzzi day in Miami with the GBHP boys
- Dancing on the bar of the Nederhutte in Obergurgl with the Dads & Lads
- Swimming with bioluminescent plankton in Rincon del Mar with Andrea
- The first pint at the Trafalgar Tavern to kickstart the Eurotrip with Scott & Katie
- The pool party at Beth’s wedding outside of Bordeaux
- Brussels at night with Gabi’s coworkers, staying up all night before my Ryanair flight
- Climbing in the Lake District with Nevin & Gabi, and golf in Scotland with Nevdawg
- The 30 hours of bus rides to and from London to see the incredible Red Hot Chili Peppers with Emma, Lauren, & Troy in a 20 hour stay in Paris
- The responsability of being a groomsman for the first time at Clarkey’s wedding
- The chiva after Alex & Lina’s wedding
- Emerging at the mouth of the cave of the Ventanas de Tizquizoque waterfall
- The walk with Caro, Andy, and Kacius down the Camino Real from Barichara to Guane, and the unreal Airbnb where we stayed
- Surfing on Atlantic Beach with Chris and Ferm
- My day in Williamsburg with Chloe
- Dancing the Groomsmen dance at Nevin’s wedding (and all the practice with Victor)
- The day at Amare Beach Club and the night party at our Airbnb in Cartagena with Jack, Julia, & Max
- Party at Los Hermanos on Costeño Beach
- Cycling with the family on the Boardwalk in Portugal and spending all day at the Bold Octopus
There were many more memorable moments, but those really stick out to me.
I’m also really happy that food returned to play an important part in my life again this year and was able to inspire me in a way that it hasn’t in a couple of years. The three best meals of my year were:
- Celele – Cartagena
- Sollip – London
- Elvia – Barichara
It sounds sacrilegious, but these meals were all better than my meal at Alinea in Chicago, the first 3 Michelin Star restaurant I’ve eaten at. Context is important, and I ate at Alinea with a sick Frenchman who kept telling me how other restaurants he’d eaten at that year are better, but I do think that the menu at Alinea felt a little disjointed. The star dish (aside from the dessert table, that was everything I’d hoped for and more) that was absolutely incredible was the elevated version of a local midwestern dish (can’t remember what it’s called) with wagyu and bechamel and truffles, but some of the journey throughout the rest of the world (Thailand, Mexico, Russia) were interesting but not mindblowing. Meanwhile, the elevated Caribbean cuisine at Celele and the incredibly executed and focused Korean-Mediterranean fusion at Sollip were just spectacular. It sounds crazy, but the best dish I ate all year that I have dreams about is the cashew fruit and flower salad at Celele. It’s beautiful and tastes even better.
Other food shoutouts to Ice Q at Solden in Austria, Casa do Lago in Portugal, the catering at Beth’s wedding, Mesa Franca & Salvo Patria, Upland in NYC, la Cocina de Pepina, and the Mesa Salvaje Breakfast Burrito / the Pizza Al Pastor from Paraiso.
- Restaurants have an unlimited amount of things that can go wrong, even when demand is good. The effort:reward ratio is not good.
- Selling is not currently my strength
- I am a person who can’t rely focus on multiple priorities and am better dedicating myself to one task/responsibility/project/business and being present
- Taking the hard decisions is important and necessary, but following through after taking the hard decisions is just as important
- Dating is a good way to spend time, meeting new people and pushing yourself outside your comfort zone. It is also a time suck and can distract from other personal wellbeing habits.
- I’m not going to be ready to fully open myself to another relationship until I feel comfortable with my own life situation.
- Never bet against the Fed.
This coming year is full of unknowns, but I know that some big changes are coming. I don’t want to just give up and look for a regular job – that would be throwing aside all the experience I have earned in the past 5 years. I’m in an unconventional position and I don’t know if I’d hire me, but I do have some unique experiences, skills, and connections that I will try and put to use as I think about a fresh start. If my Colombia chapter is coming to an end, I am interested in spending time to really close out the chapter with more domestic travel and writing. The idea of a “Don’t Follow Your Dreams: Notes from a Millennial Who Achieved their Lifegoal and then had it All Fall Apart” – type memoir has crossed my mind once or twice, to at least look back in a lighthearted manner on the past 5 years and try and articulate the lessons learned and the economics of a restaurant in Colombia.
The best way to close out the chapter would be to sell Pizza Paraiso for more than I bought it for, a daunting prospect but not necessarily an impossible one. I’m putting that in writing so we can see how it plays out a year from now.
Whatever I do when I really start anew though, it has to have good unit economics, likely focus on B2B rather than end consumers, and be more directly related to either Crypto or Climate (or ideally both), two industries with positive tailwinds that I am passionate about.
My Year End 2022 Lists:
- Peaky Blinders (WHAT. A. SHOW. Can’t believe I had never seen it until this year.)
- The Boys
- Only Murders in the Building
- Rings of Power
- The World Cup (watched at El Irish in Zona T)
- Oficial Competicion (I love Penelope Cruz too much)
- A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood
- Erin Brockovich
- The Unexpected Weight of Massive Talent
- Ojitos Lindos & half of the Un Verano Sin Ti album
- Diamante Electrico
- Vicente Garcia
- Tick Tick… Boom
- Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion. Some classic Sci-Fi; two brilliant stories with evocative world building and thoughts on AI.
- Fingersmith. I wanted to read something that wasn’t Sci-Fi and this was a very long but enjoyable book with some epic twists.
Review of Last Year’s ambitions:
- I did indeed rediscover the verve for living, and had many memorable nights AND nights I’d rather forget :)
- After a decent first half of the year running, I lost momentum. Feeling good about my personal health but need exercise to be more consistent. I need to remember that I always have a better outlook on life when I exercise frequently.
- I didn’t write anything like as much as I’d like to. We’ll see if that changes this year.
- I didn’t have enough intellectually stimulating conversations. One of the main reasons I’ve felt isolated and am looking for a change.
- Prove to myself that I can SELL, both myself and my businesses
- Find a way to earn crypto, not just buy/sell it
- Travel to at least 2 regions of Colombia I haven’t yet visited
- More time on personal wellbeing, more time accepting friends’ invitations
Ideas at the end of 2022
- Holdco that buys SMBs from retiring boomers with debt
- espresso/tonic canned drink (to mix with cocktails) – perse?
- NFT related carbon credit project (how to break through the verified/authentic/scalable frontier)
- starlink + solar somehow involved
- NFT related fine dining project (monetize experiences for the most niche/hardcore diners) – nouns model?
- Heat pumps – where is the business model
- Ebike rentals (swapfiet model)
- Tip direct to coffee producers with minteo/littio