Life and Business Lessons from Colombian Street Vendors (3): What A Burger Flipper Taught Me About Expectations

What do you expect when you go to a fast-food joint?

A) A filled belly.
B) Quick service.
C) Low price.
D) A tasty meal.
E) All of the above.

We’ll find out in this post of my “Life and Business Lessons from Colombian Street Vendors” series!

Burgers for Dromologists

“You think McDonald’s is fast? Brace yourself. I’ll take you to the fastest hamburger joint in the world”, Omar told us. A friend and I were visiting him in his home town of Bucaramanga. We had spent the evening drinking and exploring the area. After much walking around, hunger had become an issue – and Omar knew where to take us.

In Colombia, fast food works a bit different than in the US. While chains like McDonald’s exist and are quite popular, they aren’t the first choice when hunger strikes. Instead, most people prefer to support their local micro business on the street. They are normally closer to your home, less expensive, and the quality is better. A place like that was exactly what Omar had in mind.

The hamburger stand was located near one of Bucaramanga’s uncountable parks. It was a comparatively dark corner, but there was still quite a bit of movement. As we got there, we saw several taxis drive by. The cabbies would exchange a few words with the employees, get their burgers, and move on. Apart from us, some two dozen people hung around, apparently enjoying their meals.

Once we were placing our orders with the cashier, a second employee immediately got busy in the background. We ordered three different menus, featuring several special requests. (“Make that double cheese and no onions.”) To our surprise, we hadn’t even reached for our wallets when the burgers were ready.

I’ll be free to admit that I’m a bit of a naive person at times. But I’m not that naive!

I know how this stuff works!

Woe betide you, astute burger flipper, if I encounter onions on my burger!

But the employees were just smiling knowingly, happy to prove me wrong: Not only had the chef managed to serve all our meals exactly as ordered, they were also neatly packed in aluminium foil. What’s more, the price was incredibly cheap and the size of the menu large enough to satisfy a truck driver after pulling an all-nighter.

Alas, where there’s light, there’s shadow.

While the Colombians might not be well-known for their cuisine, their street food has a certain fame among deep-fry connoisseurs and grease enthusiasts. Unfortunately, I’ve definitely had many better burgers in Colombia than the one in Bucaramanga. While it was passable, I probably wouldn’t have finished it if I hadn’t been a little drunk. (Ahem.)

So how does it come that the place still had so many regular customers?

The obvious reason is, of course, that we don’t expect a filled belly and quick service and a low price and an extremely tasty meal at the same time when we grab fast food. Indeed, quality isn’t the main consideration for a place that caters drunk partygoers and taxi drivers that are short on both time and money.

But, as obvious as this is, how often do we – as aspiring entrepreneurs – try to please everybody, to be 100% perfect in all areas?

And how often does this prevent us from actually starting to make an offer, to put our goods out there – because the task just seems too big! Or, if we get started, how often does it lead to mediocricy in all areas?

I think here lies the main lesson from the burger flipper: You cannot be a jack of all trades if you want to be perfect. But you don’t need to, either.

Lessons Learnt for Life and Business

  • Life is compromise: Most probably, you won’t get flawless and obliging service, great quality, and an extremely low price at the same time. As a customer, you wouldn’t expect this, either.
  • So it’s all about expectations: A customer who isn’t stupid will be aware of the compromise he’s making – no need to freak out.
  • There is a place in the world for “quick and dirty”. I’d rather not take it, but I can understand it: Some people don’t really care about quality.1 They just want something that’s quick, inexpensive and “good enough”. (And they want to be sure there’s no onion on it if they don’t like onion.)
  • That said: If you underdeliver, your customer won’t return. He may not even pay his bill, and rightly so.
  • So decide on your most important areas, focus on them, and deliver!
  • One last thing: If you overdeliver on the expectations you set, you’re gold. Paradoxical as it may seem, this is exactly what the burger flipper in Bucaramanga did: He wasn’t just cheap and “good enough”, he was also friendly and extremely fast. As long as he continues to do that, he’ll always have a working business.

Thanks to Federico Racchi for the original image (from Uruguay, not Colombia!) shared under a CC-BY license. Cropped by me.

  1. See also the first part of this series. []

Comments 2

  1. R. Silver May 9, 2013

    I love this writing style, Fabian. I hope to see it more often.

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