Foreign entrepreneurs spice up Argentina

/ Source: The Associated Press

There's more to Argentina these days than tango, tourism and tasty beef. Lured here as tourists, adventuresome foreigners are increasingly deciding to stay — launching businesses that offer everything from English tea to pad Thai and even California-style burritos topped with guacamole and spicy salsa.

Despite a crippling 2002 devaluation that saw the peso lose two-thirds of its value practically overnight, eviscerated workers' savings and sent unemployment and poverty soaring, Argentines never lost their famous predilection for living well.

And with startup costs and wages still low in post-crisis Argentina, entrepreneurs say their savings in dollars, euros and pounds go a lot further here — letting them chase entrepreneurial dreams while reveling in the nation's cosmopolitan blend of Latin America and Europe.

"Argentina is very developed compared with other countries in the region," said Jordan Metzner, the 22-year-old co-founder of the California Burrito Company in downtown Buenos Aires. "I travel around Buenos Aires with my iPod and headphones just like I would in the U.S."

When Metzner and Sam Nadler, 23, got their bachelors degrees from Indiana University's Kelley School of Business last year, they didn't want to follow their classmates straight into banking or law.

"We were highly opposed to working 9-to-5 jobs and wearing suits," said Metzner, decked out in a beanie and Bob Marley T-shirt at his burrito shop.

So they traveled as tourists to the Argentine capital, having heard that its steak dinners and dance clubs could be had on the cheap in what used to be one of the world's priciest cities.

Last November they teamed up with former banker and San Francisco native Chris Burns, 36, who had been blogging about life in Argentina. Within a month, they began renting 1,700 square feet of run-down retail space in the heart of the business district.

"The bathrooms were just holes in the ground. We had to tear the place up from top to bottom," Metzner said. But at just $1,200 a month — a comparable space in Manhattan would run on average about $180,000 — the price was right. "You could never get a place like this in a major U.S. city."

He said it took just three months and less than $100,000 — all of it withdrawn in daily runs to the ATM — to transform the "dump" into a hip joint that today is packed Argentines, burrito-craving tourists and foreign students.

"Never once did I question whether I made the right decision," Metzner said. "We have our own business and we break the limits on the nightlife."

Starting up Vines of Mendoza
Michael Evans and David Garrett found their entrepreneurial inspiration in 2004 when they visited the Andean winemaking province of Mendoza. They never left.

Neither spoke Spanish or had job contacts here, but that changed after they met Pablo Gimenez, an English-speaking Argentine lawyer whose family was in the wine business.

A year and a half later they run The Vines of Mendoza, where wine lovers can come to taste aromatic varietals and even arrange to buy and produce wine on their own privately owned estates.

Evans said their business is taking off, in part thanks to the devalued peso, which the administration of President Nestor Kirchner has kept steady and cheap at 3-to-1 to the dollar.

"We pay our people some of the highest wages in Mendoza," he said. "But a staffer in a Napa Valley (California) tasting room might make $3,000 or $4,000 a month, whereas here he might make $400 a month."

Evans' wine exports, meanwhile, are priced in dollars.

"By the end of this year we'll have generated about $2 million in revenue and $2.2 million in equity," he said. "You couldn't do that anywhere else."

Expat entrepreneurs also say doing business in Argentina is refreshingly aboveboard, compared with much of the rest of Latin America, which Transparency International, a private anti-corruption watchdog group, calls "a region that is adrift in a sea of corruption." A recent TI survey showed that only 6 percent of Argentines reported paying a bribe within the past year, compared with 31 percent of Mexicans and 43 percent of Paraguayans surveyed.

"Nobody has ever come around and asked for a bribe," said British-born Lisa Stevenson, who opened an English-style teahouse, La Rosa Inglesa, in March 2005.

But Briton Jaime Taylor, who opened the heterosexual-friendly gay bar Flux in the capital along with Russian traveler Ilia Konon, cautioned that the country presents unique headaches along with the opportunities.

For one thing, lower Argentine salaries mean fewer people here can afford to dine and drink out, which can make it hard to run a profitable bar.

Then there are the complex tax and labor regulations, not to mention finicky landlords who often want local property as collateral.

Taylor said he lucked out in landing a 2,200-square-foot basement space for the "ridiculously cheap" price of $700 a month — but he has to renegotiate every six months.

And while Buenos Aires still ranks among the world's cheapest big cities, prices are rising as Argentina steadily recovers.

"Long term plans in Argentina tend to be six months to one year," said Kevin Rodriguez, a New Jersey native and veteran of the entrepreneurial bunch who runs the popular Empire Thai restaurant. "I can't make a 10-year business plan if I don't know what's going to happen in two years. Right now inflation is on top of me. My food prices are going up and I have to keep increasing my employees' salaries, so I pass this off to my menu."

Argentina's double-digit inflation is "a killer," agreed Stevenson, of La Rosa Inglesa. Also troublesome are the government's shifting economic policies.

"On a macroeconomic level, you're in the hands of God in terms of the Argentine economic cycle," she said. "It's best not to think about it."

Still, the country is "ripe for new ideas" from foreigners who are willing to earn pesos and eager to live here, said Stevenson, a former human resources executive in Jakarta who met her Argentine husband in Australia.

"We thought about starting a business in Europe," she said, "but we made the lifestyle decision to do it here."