What a Coffee Salesman taught me about Walking the Walk

Tintero CartagenaVisiting the beautiful city of Cartagena, you’ll quickly see these busy-looking men walking around the streets with a bunch of thermos jugs. When they are moving, they’ll generally walk a tad faster than usual. Some of them whistle. Some of them shout. Some of them just mumble. A few of them don’t even say anything at all.

These men are called tinteros and they have something in common: All of them have really worn shoes (or flip-flops, for that matter). And all of them sell coffee in Colombia’s fifth-largest city.

The tintero business is simple enough: Get a few thermos jugs. Add nescafé ((A shame to use freeze-dried coffee, yes. But from what I’ve been told and from what my taste buds tell me, this is unfortunately true more often than not.)), sugar and hot water. Bring along a bunch of plastic cups. And off you go.

Very few tinteros have a fixed spot to sell their coffee. I don’t know whether that’s due to some law or regulation or just because they want to sell more by hustling. Fact is, most of them walk around to find their customers. And they walk a lot.

In Cartagena, a small tinto on the streets is $200 pesos (about $0.11), compared to anything between $500 and $2000 in cafeterias and restaurants. It looks like the business works nicely, despite the growing popularity of starbucksy coffee chains like Oma and Juan Valdez: Allegedly, there are now more than 3.000 tinteros in Cartagena alone. That would be one for every 300 citizens. If you look at how regularly you meet one of them in almost any part of the city, this number may well be true, suggesting that selling coffee at $0.11 a pop provides an income to thousands of families.

A typical tintero goes long ways to care for his customers. Both literally and figuratively: Many bring hot milk to prepare café con leche. Others, especially in the tourist areas, know that not all foreigners are fond of the typical oversweetened coffee of the region; so they also carry an unsweetened jug. If you meet a tintero regularly, he may offer you a coffee flatrate: Pay him $5000 pesos and you’re set for the month.

Also, quite a few tinteros diversify. They sell anything from nuts to crackers to cigarettes to accompany their coffee. Nowadays, some of the younger ones even sell space cookies – probably a good way to subsidize your business in times of rising coffee prices, as long as the police doesn’t catch you. Save to assume Bill Clinton – a certified fan of the city – didn’t inhale.

Like Louis Vest, the photographer of the amazing image at the top of this post writes: “Not exactly the Starbucks business model, but Starbucks doesn’t come to you.”

Lessons Learned

  • Not all business is about being loud.
  • Or innovative.
  • Just show up and bring something people care about. (And, seriously, who wouldn’t care about coffee?!)
  • Sometimes, it’s not enough to remain seated: Don’t wait for your customers to come to you. Go where they are.
  • But most importantly: If you want to get somewhere, bring good shoes.

This was the second part of my (wee) series on Life and Business Lessons from Colombian Street Vendors. Find part 1 here: What a Sausage Salesman taught me about Business.

The photo illustrating this post was taken by Louis Vest, released under a CC-BY-NC license. ((Thanks a lot for providing this beautiful photo under a CC license, Louis. Really appreciate it!))