Every year thousands of expats arrive for the first time to Costa Rica, fall in love with the country and its people, and decide they want to make it home. Unfortunately for the vast majority, even if they get residency and/or permission to work, finding a niche can be difficult. My first ever job here was also probably the most common for expats– English teacher.
I taught for several months before looking for another popular niche. I was never flexible enough to be a yoga instructor and tourism hadn’t yet taken off as the job creator it was to become. One day I bought a loaf of bread and some cookies at a local bakery. The bread was dry and fell apart when I tore off a hunk. The cookies were sugar bombs with weird colored radioactive looking icing. I had baked my own wheat bread for years, and figured there were other people out there who wanted something different from what was available.
I began baking bread and cookies from home and selling at the beach and local farmer’s market. They sold well so I thought if I opened a storefront, I would sell even more. I was wrong. My little shop was on a street of tightly packed discount businesses that catered to working class Ticos. My goods were strange and exotic to those who stopped by.
I would offer a sample slice of multigrain bread and they would break off a tiny morsel from the slice and put it to their lips as if taking medicine, before not buying anything. My regular customers would pass by– when they could find parking– complement my ‘artisanal’ bakery, and then ask which day that week I would be selling at the beach or the feria. The six months I kept the storefront open was an education in how exhausting running your own business can be.
Mine was mostly a solo operation with one counter attendant who also cleaned the baking area in the ample downtime. I baked all night four times a week, then after a few hours’ sleep, ran around trying to sell the products that weren’t selling at the storefront. Sometimes, the 3am light from my shop window would attract street people.
My most loyal customers! And those hunks of bread and broken cookies I gifted them were gratefully gobbled down. Small businesses abound in Costa Rica, and inside each one is a stressed shopkeeper hoping to turn a profit after paying employees, caja, quarterly muni taxes, water, electric and insurance. It can be hard on your health.
When I opened for business, I was in good shape physically. In six months, I gained about 10 kilos, in the form of an off-road bicycle tire where my waistline had been. Any discussion of being a small business owner is incomplete without mentioning the government. Rules and regulations, who needs them, Graham Nash once sang.
Obviously, he was unfamiliar with the situation here. I had filled out all necessary forms, been inspected by the health department, and was a few days from opening, when another soldier of the bureaucracy arrived. There may be a problem, he said. Some obscure regulation that prohibited a baking establishment within 50 meters of an ag store, or a vet store or maybe a pharmacy? It was so absurd, I can’t remember.
At week’s end I was informed all was good and I could open. A few days of unnecessary anxiety caused by an arcane rule misapplied by an arm of the government. Who would have thought it? The day I officially shut down was a huge relief. I went back to working from home, with a permanent respect for the thousands of small business owners scratching out a living here