Life and Business Lessons from Colombian Street Vendors: What a Sausage Salesman taught me about Business

What a Butifarra Vendor taught me about BusinessAt the Caribbean coast of Colombia, festivities take place on the streets. The weather is always great, you can catch a nice breeze, and the neighbors are friendly. So instead of locking yourself in, you put a bunch of plastic chairs in front of your house and create a spontaneous road block to celebrate your party.

Family and friends, some neighbors, and the occasional freeloading loafer will get together, have a few beers and lots of rum, listen to extremely loud tropical music, and dance. Some snacks might be offered, but real food is generally saved up for later at night.

This leads to an interesting constellation, where the butifarra vendor comes into play.

Butifarra is originally a Catalan specialty that at some point made it to the American colonies. It’s a type of pork sausage, the Colombian variant being round and small and very greasy.

I have asked plenty of locals about the details – but as it turns out, most people don’t really know how butifarra’s made. Nor what’s exactly inside it.

This and the fact that the butifarra that arrives at the party might already have been carried around for a whole day (or two) in the merciless tropical sun gives them a dubious fame. I wouldn’t go overboard saying that they aren’t a natural-born bestseller.

Consequently, whenever the butifarra vendor gets to a party, he’s treated like Jehova’s Witnesses knocking at the door of Richard Dawkins.

To be sure, the vendors are generally nice guys. They carry their merchandise in huge iron sheet pans in front of their bellies, whose hefty weight leads to their signature hollow-back. They also bring a knife to cut the sausages, and you’ll always know that a butifarrero has arrived when you hear the “knock-knock” they make, hitting their knife against the pan to attract attention.

Their prospective customers, though, are generally critical. Joking at best, condescending at the worst, most of them frown upon the poor vendors and their offer. In the end, who would want to buy a sausage of such questionable origins?

The answer to this rhetorical question isn’t such an obvious “Nobody” as you might expect, though.

Actually, it’s much more of an “It depends.”

And the butifarra vendor knows that, of course!

Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler Enters The Stage

The fact that butifarra vendors are able to make a living might be perplexing to many of us – unless we’ve read Terry Pratchett’s (excellent) Discworld book series. One of the inhabitants of this fantasy world is Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler, a sausage salesman in the metropolis Ankh-Morpork. He’s “Discworld’s most enterprisingly unsuccessful entrepreneur, a ‘merchant venturer’ in Ankh-Morpork, […] most famous for selling meat by-products to unsuspecting souls,” as Wikipedia knows.

We could say, then, that the butifarra vendor is the “Globeworld’s” equivalent to Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler. With the small difference that most of his clients aren’t “unsuspecting”, but drunk and hungry.

It goes like this: As the party continues, more and more rum and beer flows down dozens of thirsty throats. The snacks – if there were any – are long gone, and with the increasing drunkenness, hunger becomes an issue. There’s nothing else to eat, and the only food source around is the butifarra vendor, drumming his pan.

But we’ll resist!

We wouldn’t want to get butifarra, would we?

Until the first person breaks.

Sooner or later, the first brave guy among the party attendants puts on a strongman act and gets some butifarra. It’ll be a small sale for the vendor, but it’ll have huge consequences: Suddenly, all the hungry, drunk people around will be watching. They won’t be joking anymore. They’ll just sit and observe. And as the guy starts to eat, he’ll move his head in a deliberative manner and render his judgement pretty fast: “Not too bad!”

This is when the butifarra vendor wins.

Suddenly, other guys will approach him, and the ladies will ask their company to get them a serving. From one moment to the next, the vendor will be surrounded by dozens of people. And he’ll sell his merchandise just like hot cakes.

Lessons Learnt

So here are the lessons we can learn from the butifarrero:

  • Have time.
  • Look for your audience.
  • Be there early.
  • Ignore the laughs.
  • But most importantly: Stay pacient. You’ll get them sooner or later.
I believe that everybody can be our teacher, if we are willing to observe and learn! This was the first of an (overdue) series of things I learnt from Colombian street vendors. If you’d like to follow along, please subscribe here for free updates by email and RSS.

Original image taken from the Wikimedia Commons. CC-BY by Jdvillalobos.