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Paradise, Sweet Paradise: Owning a Small Business in Atenas, Costa Rica

A few years back, I met Tom and Jan Yatsko at our local feria (farmers’ market), when I spotted their stand of homemade baked goods. As a family, we are suckers for good quality baked goods, so we were more than eager to try a sampling of amazing products that we had been unable to find in our little town of Atenas.

 

We were in heaven. I remember Tom had an amazing variety of fresh baked breads, cakes, pies, cookies, and sweet rolls. The first things we tired were the carrot cake with cream cheese icing and the sticky rolls. Needless to say, they were both amazing. In addition to producing a high quality product, I was impressed with the service and pride that the Yatskos’ took in their budding business. You could see it not only in their products themselves, but in the expressions on their faces, and in the manner in which they interacted with their clients. However, the thing that most impressed me was that they spoke both English and Spanish! Being an entrepreneur myself, I knew that they had everything they needed to succeed in their new venture.  

 

 

 Originally from Pennsylvania, Tom and Jan discovered Costa Rica in the 1990‘s through their passion for cycling with a group from Washington State. They had made similar trips to Mexico and Belize, but they fell in love with Costa Rica. The cycling group stopped their trips to Costa Rica, but Tom says, “We kept coming back, year after year”. For Tom, who worked in the restaurant business back in Pennsylvania, Costa Rica made perfect sense. He could take extended vacations in January and February when the winter stopped tourism back home and head south to soak up the tropical sun!  “At one point we decided to take a one year sabbatical. We justified the break by saying we would learn the language and culture.” Tom continues by saying ,“After that first year we decided that we did not want to go back home because we loved our life in Costa Rica”.

 

For three months, Tom and Jan did a Spanish language course with home exchange in Zapote, a suburb of San Jose. They knew they did not want to live in the area because of the cold, dreary, rainy climate. One of the professors from the school, being from Atenas, suggested that the couple check out the small mountain town, offering a personal tour. However this was not the first time Tom and Jan had been to Atenas. On one of their biking tours through Costa Rica, they had ventured to Atenas via the steep and winding mountain road known as the Aguacate (Highway 3) from Orotina, stopping in Atenas for lunch. Tom says, “We loved it! It felt nice. Like home”. There were other reasons for choosing Atenas. Jan said, “Atenas was half way between San Jose and the coast”, offering country living with an amazing climate and lots of sunshine. The idea of “no more winter clothes” was exactly what the couple was looking for. “That was 13 years ago and we have been here ever since.”

 

 The idea of moving to a foreign country is one thing but starting a business and making a living is another ball game altogether. Tom says, “The process of starting a new life in a foreign country is dramatic and life changing.  Some things are wonderful, and others not so much. That forces you to adapt, be more flexible, and less rigid. It makes you more understanding.” Tom adds, “It also changes your attitude.” Tom went on to say “We found opportunities to work and live our life in Costa Rica.” At first Tom was an international recruiter, sending Costa Rican workers back to Pennsylvania for seasonal work. However, when the US government scrapped the temporary work visa program, that opportunity dried up. At that point Tom and Jan made a personal inventory and check list of what they could do to earn a living. According to Tom, “Everything was related to the food business. Jan suggested that the local feria would be a good place to start. Our first inclination was towards catering but once we were at the feria, we found a great response from the locals for our products, so that is were we put our efforts.”  Buen Pan y Mas was born!

 

For Tom, having an extensive background in the hospitality and restaurant business, and a love for baking, made this venture a no brainer. One of his jobs was as a third shift baker for a family run business. Tom says he got the job by saying, “I know the difference between flour and sugar and I am a fast learner”. Tom continues by saying, “I always liked baking. When I did other jobs I always missed the hands-on part of baking.  It’s magical. At the end of the day its nice to look at what you created and feel a sense of accomplishment.” I made an immediate connection with this sentiment because this is how I have been motivated throughout my life, both personally and professionally.  

 

Starting Buen Pan y Mas was like starting any other business. Tom told me as with most small businesses, the process can be “difficult and cumbersome.  It can be scary because you don’t want to make mistakes.”  However, Tom stresses that you shouldn’t be afraid to “TRY IT” and “learn as you go”. He adds ,“It is a process of hard work! It’s not a Monday thru Friday, 9-5 job.” Getting the support of the local expat community was easy because they were familiar with the products and Tom and Jan were filling a niche that was missing in the small community of Atenas. However, winning the locals over was a different challenge, and that had been their mission all along. Jan said that “learning” was a major key in winning over the locals. For example, knowing that when Costa Ricans drink their coffee, they like both sweet and salty treats as accompaniments. Round bread is not common here, but Jan noticed that around communion time, the locals would buy the round loafs of bread because it was what was described in the Bible. Tom added, “locals were not used to seeing baguettes displayed vertically in a basket. Here they are displayed horizontally”, so he added a few baguettes horizontally at the base of the basket. Little by little Tom and Jan learned to market to the locals and won them over with samples and “word of mouth”. Tom says a major key to doing business in Costa Rica is “perseverance”. 

 

Today, Tom and Jan feel that they have been warmly welcomed and accepted by the local community. In regards to working with locals, both as clients and as business owners, their experience has been positive. They both feel that they have worked hard and earned the respect of their peers at the local ferias. Jan says that in the beginning, “I think they did not think we would last, as we were perceived as being retired. We have now earned the respect of the Costa Ricans because they know that what we do is hard work. We have given them a different perspective from what they had of  foreigners”. Jan will often say to clients, “By purchasing our bread, you put bread on our table”.  As for having local employees, Tom says you have to be a “responsible employer”. There are some cultural differences, for example, finding out that an employee needs Tuesday off for a doctor’s appointment on Monday afternoon at 5 p.m.!  Tom’s response, “We will figure it out”. Tom also credits being flexible and creating an environment where people enjoy what they do, which makes for happy employees.

 

Buen Pan y Mas offers a wide array of artisan baked goods and breads, priding themselves on the fact that everything is homemade from scratch, without the use of mixes or preservatives. Their whole wheat product line includes: sourdough bread, fig and walnut bread, oat, flax, and sunflower seed bread, 5 grain bread, 100% whole wheat bread and soft pretzel bread (also known as iguana bread - so called because of the ridges that are created from cuts across the dough, before baking, resembling the spiny back of an iguana.). Tom points out that iguanas are not part of the ingredients for the iguana bread! In addition to their whole wheat bread selections, Buen Pan y Mas turns out other breads such as focaccia, French baguettes, and white italian bread. On the sweet side, Buen Pan y Mas offers apple pies, tropical fruit pies, cinnamon buns (which are their flagship product), cobblestones (which are a new version of the tradition cinnamon roll), sticky buns with almonds and carmel (which I am eating along with my cup of afternoon joe as I write this story), cookies, eclairs, lemon pound cake (made with Costa Rican heirloom lemons), carrot cake with cream cheese frosting (Gerardo’s favorite), and a chocolate cake made with Bavaria Dark beer, a Costa Rican beer that Tom says, “combines great with the coco”. One of my favorite treats is their Zaguate muffin, which is a bread pudding muffin. But the name? Well, Zaguate is Costa Rican for “mutt”. Tom says everything that’s left over gets put together, fruit is added and you have a tasty muffin!  Product prices start from as little as 700 colones for single buns and cookies, up to 4800 colones for an apple pie. Breads range from 1300 to 2000 colones.

 

So, what does the future hold for Tom and Jan? Tom says he is an “optimist” and is always looking for new opportunities. Buen Pan y Mas has recently expanded by offering some their products in our local grocery store, CoopeAtenas. In addition, they sell to local restaurants like The Galeria in Grecia, as well as the coffee shop at the new AutoMercado in Alajuela. Tom comments that, “Costa Rican society is becoming more connected technologically speaking. Costa Ricans are looking beyond their traditional borders and the middle class is growing here in Costa Rica. Because they have more income, the locals are wanting to expand their horizons and try new things.” One client said to Tom and Jan, “That is the apple pie I saw in the movies, I want to try it!” This is a great sign and I instantly see why Tom is “optimistic about the opportunities in Costa Rica”.

 

If you want to tickle your taste buds,Tom and Jan can be reached via their new Facebook page at: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Buen-Pan-y-Mas-Superb-Bread-in-Atenas/190006714434070 or call them at 2446-4764 / 8306-9767. You will also find them at the feria in Atenas on Friday mornings from 6 a.m. to 11a.m. under the white tent next to the basketball court. Friday afternoon starting at 2 p.m. and Saturday mornings from 6 a.m. to 1 p.m. they can be found at the feria in Grecia. Special orders can be made upon request.  

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