Most of us are interested in starting a business but we also want to travel. Why not do both? Entrepreneur and restaurateur David Horn shares his experiences living, working and opening a restaurant in Costa Rica.
How did you end up in Costa Rica?
I was living in New York City after I graduated college, working anywhere between 10 and 18 hour days in the special events and catering business. I hated it and didn’t see any end in sight. I’ve always felt there is more to life than work, work, work so I started looking for opportunities outside of the U.S. I ended up getting hired by a travel agency in San Jose, Costa Rica and, within a few weeks, I packed up my stuff, subleased my apartment and took off to Costa Rica. I figured if things didn’t work out that the worst case scenario would be I’d have a mini-vacation before having to find another job in the U.S.
How did you find that travel agent job?
I posted my resume on a website called TicoJobs and they contacted me.
Is it easy for foreigners to find employment and get work visas in Costa Rica?
Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to get a work visa in Costa Rica because you have to prove that a local employee cannot do what you do. However, you can be contracted for your services, so I technically wasn’t an employee. There are a fair amount of jobs for foreigners in Costa Rica but they’re mainly only in 3 areas (tourism, teaching English, and sports gambling). I took a few years of Spanish in high school so I sort of knew the basics but I still felt very awkward getting around. You don’t really NEED to know Spanish there at first, because a lot of Costa Ricans do speak English, however, you’ll be much more unhappy and feel out of place. When you can just throw caution to the wind, go out and talk to people in Spanish, not care if you are right or wrong, that’s when you’ll learn how to speak it and really be able to enjoy living in a foreign country.
What was your salary like compared to living expenses?
It gets tricky comparing cost of living in Costa Rica to the US because it all depends on what you’re talking about. Rent is usually cheaper. You can get a 2-bedroom apartment for about $500 and split it with a roommate. However, people should realize it’s a different country so you can’t expect the apartments to be the same there as they are in the U.S. Transportation is easy because they have a plethora of buses that go just about anywhere and cost less than $1 to ride, however, it does take a while. Taxis are everywhere and cost between $5 and $10 to go most places in and around the city. Internet is about the same as it is in the U.S. Nightlife is way cheaper than in the U.S. Some of the night clubs I went to cost between $15 and $20 for an open bar between 9am – 1pm. Groceries are more expensive, especially if you want to buy anything that is imported. Electronics and cars are super expensive, twice as much as they are in the U.S., again, because they have to be imported and the government taxes them a lot. In order to save in Costa Rica, you have to change your lifestyle. You can’t live like you do in the U.S., buying a lot of products. You should look to the locals to see what they do and try to implement some of their habits into how you live. That will help you save money.
What is the quality of life like in Costa Rica?
The average salary of a Costa Rican is about $400 per month. For someone that is college educated, I believe it’s about $600 per month. When you first get there, it just baffles your mind. However, you come to understand and accept it and see that they are very happy. Costa Rica consistently ranks as one of the happiest countries in the world. As an American, you can expect to make more, around $1000 per month I would say is normal. If you can find a job that pays more, then you will be able to save some money. I didn’t go there to save money but I actually was able to, although I worked very hard to do so. I was in sales so I was paid solely on commission and was able to make, on average, about $1,500 – $2,000 per month. Regarding crime, I’m sad to say that it seems to be getting worse there. The first two years that I lived there, I didn’t hear about that much crime. However, in the last two years that I was there, I knew of a lot of people that were robbed or mugged. The majority of crime there is not violent, mostly petty theft, however I feel that the government really needs to step it up and cut back on crime.
Why did you open a restaurant and why Costa Rica?
I’ve always wanted to own a restaurant because I love food and cooking. One day at dinner, one of my best friends, who worked at the travel agency with me, said, “Dave, why don’t we open a restaurant?”. We were both ready for something new and just went for it. It took about a year to open from the time we had that conversation because it took us months to find a location for rent that we could afford and we felt would work. Starting a business in Costa Rica is a lot cheaper because labor is so cheap. Also, laws are not as strict there so you don’t get as bogged down in permits, regulations, etc.
Please tell us about your restaurant.
It’s called Picante Grill. Picante means spicy in Spanish. Costa Ricans love fast food so we wanted to do fast food but using fresh ingredients made to order in a clean, modern atmosphere. We believe that eating fast food doesn’t mean you have to eat crappy tasting food in a cheesy environment. The cuisine is Mexican inspired American food including tacos, burritos, quesadillas, salads and soups. You can find our menu online at PicanteGrillCR.
Is your partner a Costa Rican?
My business partner is American as well. However, we do have two Costa Ricans involved in our business because it’s very helpful to do so. You’ll have a greater struggle if you try to do it on your own. Costa Ricans are a tight knit bunch so you’ll do yourself a favor by integrating yourself.
Can small businesses like restaurants or bed and breakfasts make a decent income?
With any restaurant, don’t expect to make an income before two years of being in business. Make sure you have savings. It’s a tough industry. We opened right around the time of the financial meltdown. Fortunately, we’re still open today. In my honest opinion, making a living online is going to become more and more popular because of how difficult running brick-and-mortar businesses is becoming.
Is it easy to get long-term visas to open up a business in Costa Rica?
As far as I know, there are only a few ways to be able to live in Costa Rica legally. You can retire, marry a Costa Rican, or open a business that employs Costa Rican staff. The biggest difficulty in Costa Rica is the amount of time it takes to do things. It’s very bureaucratic and SLOW.
Do have regrets about opening the restaurant?
Opening the restaurant was a great experience for me as it was my first business venture. I don’t regret it as it helped me further redefine what I like and don’t like professionally. Personally, I liked my staff as people but dealing with employee matters ate up so much of my day. Like I eluded to earlier, I think more and more people are going to move away from brick-and-mortar businesses. You realize that it’s so much work for a limited number of potential customers. You can do the same amount of work with an online business but your potential customer base expands astronomically. My next venture is an Internet business selling t-shirts and underwear, BareYourTaboo . I hope to have the site fully operational by January 30th.
What do you like and don’t like about your life now?
I’m back in the U.S. now. I love that I can see my family all the time. That was the hardest thing for me living in another country, only being able to see them once or twice a year. I think that, as Americans, we don’t always put a big emphasis on family. Living in Costa Rica helped me realize that. In Costa Rica, most kids live at home until they are married. They eat together as a family, go on vacations as a family, spend weekends together. I also love being back in the U.S. because, food-wise, it’s much more diverse. I love being able to go eat Thai, Spanish, Indian, Vietnamese, etc. There aren’t as many options in Costa Rica but I learned to get by and be resourceful. As far as things I don’t like, although I’m not really involved in the rat-race, I don’t like hearing about it. When I hear people gloating about some new car or TV they bought, it makes me sick, honestly. I’m not against buying nice things but they should be to make yourself feel better, not to brag to others about. The thing I don’t like the most about living here is the cold weather. In San Jose, where I lived, it’s 80 degrees every day, year-round!
What advice would you offer for others thinking of moving abroad and starting a business?
As for making the move and starting a business, I’d say, “go for it!”. Life is too short to sit on your ass and keep thinking about it. The only way you’ll ever know if you’ll like it or be successful is if you do it. Remember that there is a good chance you may not like it and/or fail and that it’s OK! Most people are so afraid to fail that it prevents them from ever truly experiencing life. As for living in Costa Rica or any foreign country, be humble and remember that you are living in THEIR country. Look at is a learning experience, not as a way for you to implement your lifestyle on them. Nothing would make me angrier than hearing my fellow countrymen in a bank or restaurant and shouting at the employees, “This wouldn’t happen in America!”. If you’re not ready to truly be open-minded and willing to change, moving to another country is probably not for you.
If anyone has any questions they can contact me at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Picante Grill David Horn’s restaurant in Costa Rica
Bare Your Taboo David’s next project selling t-shirts and underwear
David’s Interview with Greg Rollett on RockStarLifestyleDesign.com