“I’ll Have The Love Tacos Please!” – How We Successfully Operated Our Restaurant in Costa Rica

The old restaurant refrigerator hummed and rumbled sporadically, a sign that for at least this moment, all of its’ contents weren’t “going south.”

This would be the last time I’d heave up the rolling steel garage doors of our tiny Mexican restaurant, that opened up to the bustling street in front.

I surveyed the dining room, shaking my head as I looked down at the bulky Guanacaste wood tables and chairs that took up way too much room. They’d been made by a local artist, so we’d tolerated the inconvenience and bruised shins for years.

The bright-colored Mexican blankets and papel picado, hanging on the walls, were covered with a thin layer of street dust, a relentless foe, I constantly battled. I’d painstakingly rag painted all the dining room walls with a sticky low-quality orange paint, which left my hands looking like I’d had a spray tan fail, for our grand opening.

I could see the smiles on the faces of the many “Ticos” we’d employed through the years and heard the repetitive drum and horns of the local school band practicing their one piece, over and over in the building behind ours, as they relentlessly prepared for the independence parade that was still seven months away.

Memories of the hundreds of conversations we’d had in that space, hung in the air. I heard the laughter of old friends who had since passed, the questions of the mystified tourists, wondering how we were living their dream life, and remembered the many times locals stopped by, just to be heard and “loved up.”

Four years earlier, we’d opened our little taqueria in Costa Rica, with not much more than blind ambition, endless optimism and a miniscule budget. My husband’s ability to speak Spanish, finding a “Tico” accountant we could trust, having an in demand concept and most importantly, treating everyone with respect (and a dash of scepticism,) were just a few of the reasons we’d become so successful.

Our story was featured in International Living magazine, https://internationalliving.com/a-stress-free-life-and-a-money-making-business-in-costa-rica/and the writer, Emily, surmised that were actually serving “love tacos,” and she was right!

Our lives ran on a blissful rhythm of quiet early morning walks along the beach, seeing the kids off to school, an hour at the daily English recovery meeting, and then into “work” to see who would wander into our world that day.

We’d wave to a parade of local community members passing by everyday; uniformed school kids, hotel workers dressed in their logo wear shirts, tanned surfers in board shorts, some ambling alcoholics, and innumerable stray dogs.

We were located in the center of the most popular tourist destination in Costa Rica, which meant we’d also see dozens of flustered tourists rushing by to catch the local bus that would take them down to the beach, unaware that the buses ran every 15 minutes.

Our little restaurant was not a cash cow, but our family of four lived quite comfortably (and contentedly) in this beachside paradise. Which is why, when the strong urge to sell our restaurant, hit my husband and I almost simultaneously, we were shaken, but took notice.

The hankering to sell would not subside, so we decided to meet with a local realtor friend, who suggested we set the price on the high side, and “Just see what happens.” What we were selling was a leased space full of used restaurant equipment, a mix of second, or maybe third-hand tables and chairs, bare bones supplies and cheerful decorations.

Whoever bought our taqueria, was basically buying our recipes and goodwill. Not sure about what we’d do if we ever sold our restaurant, we decided on a pretty steep sale price and then resumed our day-to-day life, blissfully unaware of the changes we’d set in motion that day.

Less than a month after we’d listed our little taqueria for sale, it had sold for full asking price, and we signed over the restaurant to its’ new owners!

The only thing I can attribute the incredible turn of events to, was our business philosophy…and God.

In a town full of restaurants competing for every tourist dollar, we took a different approach and concerned ourselves with producing a quality product and being kind, fair and honest with all of our customers, rather than focussing on thwarting the competition.

In the past, when we’d risen to the number one spot on Tripadvisor, we became the target of other restaurants’ ferocious attacks in the form of negative Tripadvisor reviews. Lesson learned, we chose to hang a bit lower down in the ratings, and let the big dogs fight it out for the top spots. Ultimately, we stopped checking the reviews as frequently, focused on doing the best job we could…and the business grew.

We welcomed everyone by name, or at least a recognition of it being their first, or a repeat visit, and bid them, “Adios!” when they left. We tried to listen, and provide a place where our customers were not only well fed, but felt at home and we developed a reputation for serving “love tacos!”

This is how we operated our business, and it paid off. While there are no guarantees; doing the next right thing, being patient, figuring out who you can trust, being patient (yes, I mentioned that again!) and attempting to be loving in every situation, will go along way in your success as business owners in a foreign country.

Pura vida, Penny

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