July 2015 – Colin Maruk

2015-04-15 13.29.13This month our VIP is Colin, owner of Breakers Bar on the beach, featuring great live music –  while he pours shots of tequila into his customers’ open mouths! That’s quite an art you have!

Thank you! I very rarely spill any, although pouring in high winds can be tricky – but I have a lot of practice!

You have an unusual last name – what’s your background?

My name is Ukrainian – my grandparents came over to Canada in 1928, well my grandmother didn’t get there until 1937, she got stuck in the Ukraine for a few years. A lot of Ukrainians emigrated to America, but a lot went to Canada as in the 1890s the Canadian foreign minister invited immigrants, giving land free. Canada needed people to farm the land and build the railroad too. I was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba and lived there till I was 33.

What did you do?

I was team leader and then a manager for a Government department there. I had a promising career being one of the youngest team leaders and managers there ever. But I saw the same things every day and the same people, and we said the same things every day… It reminded me of the movie Groundhog Day! I worked with some really talented people – the civil service unfortunately gets a bad rap, but there’s some really good people! As I got promoted – it was a great career – the politics got far more involved, and that is not a pleasant part of the job. I was in my early 30s but I thought I did not want to do this for the next 20 years, I wanted to do something more fun – it was a big part of my decision to move here.

Are you married or been married?

No and no.

You are probably Bucerias’ most eligible bachelor then!

I don’t know about that! Actually my business is my wife and my employees are my kids! I’m still looking, I’ve waited this long, I’m not in a rush.

When did you first come to Bucerias?

I really can’t remember… the first time I came down it was to PV in 1991, and at that time Bucerias was really far out. I remember seeing advertisements for the Marival Hotel in Nuevo and thinking it was in the middle of nowhere! There was nothing really past the airport, no high rise buildings and only a two lane road. I think it was around 1996 – 1997 when I was back down on vacation that I actually came into Bucerias, but we were on our way to Destiladeras beach and we only stopped here to pick up a couple of drinks.

Have you been to other parts of Mexico?

Yes: Mazatlan, Cabo and Cancun – that is beautiful but it is a purpose designed tourist area. People have said, and I agree, when you travel the world there are lots of beautiful places to visit but you might not want to live in them. I wanted to live here since my first visit – there’s a magnet under this Bay that just makes people feel welcome and comfortable. Mexico is an absolutely gorgeous country from top to bottom, but here there’s a different kind of charm, a bizarre authenticity to this area.

Have you seen the movie that started the tourist explosion, “Night of the Iguana”?

Yes – It is the worst movie on the face of God’s green earth! It’s the worst 2 hours of my life that I will never get back again! This was many years ago, I invited neighbors to watch the dvd, I said “this must be good because it put Vallarta on the map”… I would have left but it was my house! I guess there were some scandalous parts in it for the early 60s, with Ava Gardner frolicking in the ocean, but it was awful acting, especially from that guy – the acclaimed Sir Richard Burton !

When did you return to Bucerias?

I didn’t traipse around and get to know Bucerias until 2004, and that was only because somebody had asked if I’d been here. I came and I liked it. A couple of years later, in 2006, I couldn’t get a hotel room in PV – which sounds incredible now! – and I ended up in Nuevo.  It wasn’t a swamp in the middle of nowhere any more! I spent a lot of time in the area and I bought a pre-sale condo in Flamingos Beach.

By pre sale you mean – it wasn’t built yet?

Yes. It was a gigantic leap of faith on my part. Not a building model to see, they were just operating out of a mobile trailer – in 10 minutes they could be packed up and gone!  I wasn’t even looking for somewhere – my parents were here, they were retired and they were the ones who wanted to buy. Our holidays overlapped by a couple of days, and I went with them looking at the different properties. And here was this complex which they liked, yet to be built, and I thought – great – I could buy one too, use it a couple of weeks to come down, rent it out, and they could look after it for me!

How was the building experience?

Let’s just say it worked out finally. We had to establish mutual trust that I would send money every month and that they would keep on building! The experience was actually good for me, I learnt a lot, but I would not put anyone thru that, the warning bells and whistles. They did finish it but it wasn’t to the level they’d promised me. But by the same token if you walk into a showroom to buy a chevy cavalier you are not expecting to drive out in a corvette. But in the end I did get a great deal, the beach is right there.

So you continued working in Canada?

Yes, 2007 and I was getting really bored. I decided I would rather spend 11 months here and 1 month in Canada instead of the other way round – and who wouldn’t? So in February 2008 I took a month’s leave of absence from my job, came down and started working for a realty office in PV –  that’s where most of the agents were –  to see if it was doable for me to move down here.  In July I moved down here full time, and my holiday investment rental became my home and I commuted to my job in PV.

During that time I would come into Bucerias and go to YoYo Mo’s, occasionally Mar y Sol or El Chivero, but I never came down this part of the street, except my friends had met owners of this bar.  They were a couple of young surfers and they called it Barefoot Surf & Paddle Bar – although there’s no surfing action in Bucerias!  So we met a couple of times here, at what is now Breakers.

I didn’t know it at the time, but it had a bit of a rep, almost a curse – before them the bar had been called Curacao, before that it was Marco’s Place, and after them it was Encore. I think Encore is now in a much better location for them on Lazaro Cardenas.This is a more “feet in the sand, buckets of beer Margaritaville” type place. So Encore left in May 2011, and one morning in June I was walking down the beach and saw this place, empty, with a For Rent sign and I thought it had potential

Did you have restaurant or catering knowledge?

None whatsoever – unless you count working for my friend’s Dad delivering pizza when I was in high school ! So it was way outside of my knowledge basis. But I thought customer service and hospitality should be the same and I sat down, did a bit of a business plan, and thought maybe I could make a go of this. Real estate was really slow and this would give me a nice little side line. I talked to the landlord a number of times then signed the contract in August and put down the down payment.  I went to Canada for a month, did all the planning, returned in September, and we opened up in time for high season on 22 October 2011.

Did you experience any difficulties in setting up in business?

No, that was the easiest part: getting the contract with the landlord, getting the accountant to structure this legally and tax wise, that was all easy. The biggest challenge in this type of industry is finding good employees. It is very rewarding but very frustrating and disappointing at the same time. There is the need to find consistency with the food and the service. I don’t ever see a day when it’s not going to be a challenge, but I just have to accept that.

Would you say that was more so here or does it also apply to Canada?

Talking to people who own bar/restaurants in Canada I think it’s the same. Employee theft happens all over the world, Canada has more sophisticated inventory systems, computers, etc. One of my regular customers told me how he started an A&W restaurant 20 years ago in Edmonton. At the end of the first year he was doing the books, filling out the T4 slips for employees, and counting those who didn’t show up, or worked for one day and left, he realized in that first year they’d had 202 employees!

How many employees do you have?

My Dad used to joke when people asked him “how many people work here?” he’d reply: “about half”. During the height of the season I have around 12. That’s 3 in the kitchen, cleaning lady, cashier, 5 – 6 waiters, some are part time, covering for days off. This year we started to set up at 9 to be ready for opening at 10, and then that’s all the way through to midnight, so we were running 2 shifts.

You contribute to the Social Security system?

Yes, “Seguro Social” is something legally required for businesses. The officials from Seguro come round, especially in low season when money gets very tight, knocking on doors with the monthly bill and they always make sure they knock on our door!

You’ve discovered it’s quite different being an employer here!

Here they call you the patron, it’s a very paternalistic relationship. In Canada it’s “leave your family problems at home you’re at work now”, but here your employees have different expectations of you. It was a big adjustment, I was not used to that !

For example we always have issues regarding the splitting of tips. The tips belong to the employees and I have them meet together to come to an agreement on how they are split amongst themselves. The staff in the kitchen have a very difficult job, the waiters work hard and we have a cleaning lady who works all day to keep our restaurant clean. I encourage everyone to pull together as a team, take the individual greed out of it, and with fewer employees, they earn a greater share of the tips – everyone’s got their families to feed.

Do you cater only to the “gringos”?

Absolutely not. I don’t want to be pigeon holed that we only serve tourists, all my staff are Mexican so of course we serve the nationals. We also discuss the menu – Semana Santa for example I ask the staff what would they like to eat if they came to the beach on holiday, or their day off. We have to cater to our locals and national tourists so the input from our staff is vital.

What was the best thing that happened to you this high season?

Without a doubt I would say the best thing that has happened this year was the addition of my manager Michele Bunch to our team. I don’t know if was luck or wisdom but I asked her to help me last fall with server training and I quickly realized her potential and boundless energy and that three week training course turned into a manager position for her. She has a zest and spirit to try new things and has her heart and soul in this business. Many people comment on our social media posts and publicity and that is all of Michele’s hard work!

How many hours do you spend working?

I would say in high season on average I am here 12 hours a day, maybe more, plus all the bookwork at home. I am here every day at different times, in and out doing the shopping, seeing the accountant and so on. Some people say “I never see you” but it just depends on the time, I am here a lot! It’s important to meet the customers. My right hand Michele works more hours than I do – and then does all the website photos and videos!

How good is your Spanish?

I used to have the tourist Spanish: order a beer, ask for the toilet, get the bill, that’s it. Moving here and working in real estate I learnt more daily, but in PV I could live for 100 years and not have to speak Spanish at all ! The best way to learn Spanish is to have employees because you really need to know what is going on ! And you need to learn fast because if not you’re missing out. The vegetable guy, the Coke guy, the Corona guy, they have really limited English… and when I go to a staff meeting it’s really good to understand what they are asking for. So now, yes, it’s pretty good.

Do you have any pets?

No, I would love to but I’m here working so much, it would not be fair to leave a dog at home alone and it would be too busy at the beach to leave my dog unattended while I was out. Irene and Hans from A Splash of Glass, their dog Bonita would be our unofficial beach dog. I have looked after her while they have been out of town and it is fun, she is a great dog!

If you had any spare time – do you have any hobbies?

Not really… I have a list of things I would like to do – try paddle boarding, go to the gym, good intentions – you know where that takes you! I would like to do more travelling. In the summer I have a little place on the lake in Canada and I’d like to spend more time there, and my friends have a little sailboat and I like to do that. Here, on my days off I like to catch up on my sleep! I don’t want to go to somebody else’s bar – you are still working because you are looking at what they are doing. I just want to be at home and have a nice home cooked meal.

I do try to get away every couple of months to see friends in Guadalajara, just for a couple of days. It’s a big city and it is nice to blend into the crowd once in a while as Bucerias is a pretty small place. It is great too if my phone rings, I tell them I’m four hours away and tell whoever it is they have to deal with the problem. It’s nice to get that break!

Have you had any security problems?

I’ve only been broken into twice since opening in 2011. The first time was not much, but last June they stole about $10,000 pesos worth of tablets and stuff.  They squeezed between the bars! So now I also have wood slats across the other way.  They didn’t take any alcohol – I guess the bottles would be too heavy and the clinking would make a lot of noise as they left!  I used to have a night security person, but now I have cameras and an alarm.

You are very generous in your assistance to local charities, mainly to Manos De Amor

There are so many charities it is hard to choose one over the other. Beach Day for the Manos de Amor kids was not supposed to be a fundraiser, it was just to give them a fun time on the beach but if we can make a little money for them on the side then that’s great too. The Disco Party for Manos was a lot of fun, I was a sight to behold in my purple velvet suit and floppy hat!

And you won the Best Dressed Award at the Drag Race held by Luna Lounge! That was a fundraiser for the Tercera Edad seniors facility on the Canal Road. A very fetching black halter neck dress that matched your beard! And I know you give contributions to Rhythm n Ribs and gift certificates for the many raffles in town.

I am lucky enough to live here, and if the community has a need, then I will help.

We know your parents are regular snowbirds, what about the rest of your family?

My parents love it here, of course – my Mum makes the perogies we sell, they’re an Eastern European staple. It’s like a dumpling or a ravioli stuffed with potato and cheese pinched closed and boiled.  Of course I can’t give you the exact recipe or I’ll have to kill you!

We have ample visitors – My two sisters have visited, my aunt, cousin and her daughter were all here this past season. My cousin is increasing the length of time of her return visits. They all love it here.

Tell us what it’s like being in business in such a seasonal town.

It’s hard! You have to earn all your money in high season to cover the overheads in low season, they still exist, they don’t go away – and like elsewhere, prices keep going up. This year I had to raise my prices, I had not done so in a significant way since I first opened. Some people were upset but what can I do? What I pay for my beer is about the same price you can get it at Mega. I am not getting any huge discount, it’s Mega getting the super discount because of the amount they buy. Living here is not as cheap as it used to be and it’s not getting any cheaper.

And then there’s the big challenge with the all inclusive hotels, they discourage people from coming out. It doesn’t make sense, you’d think they’d want their guests to get out,they would save on their drinks and catering!

What are your summer opening plans?

For 3 summers we stayed open, 7 days a week, but there’s nothing more frustrating than selling just one bucket of beer and a water a day. I’m not making any money, and nor are the staff themselves, they are blowing their wages on the bus fare to get here so it’s a lose-lose situation. People working in this trade know it is seasonal. Some of the staff are used to this and take on two part time jobs or they go off to other employment, in Guadalajara for example.

Last year around 02 July we shut down one day a week and gave everyone a day off – that worked great, I didn’t have to schedule days off. This summer we are going to be open 3 days a week: Friday – funky games night, Saturday, and then Sunday will be jam/open mic… there’s a lot of talented people stay in the Bay all year round. Cold drinks and great music right on the beach – what could be better than that! I do have all year round customers and I hope they will understand that we will only be open at weekends – and come along and enjoy themselves!

Another thing we are going to try this year – now we have done renovations and improved the look and got rid of the palapa – I’m very glad that has gone, that brought all the birds in here! – we will be renting out Breakers for private parties and functions, wedding, anniversary, birthday whatever, we already have a couple of bookings. It’s such a great location, people can just take over the whole place – we will clean before and after. Or we can do the catering – buffet or sit down dinners. This will be at competitive prices and I’m really hoping that will make low season not quite so – abysmal !

Will you go back to Canada for a holiday this summer?

Normally I go for about a month, August, but this year I was thinking of taking maybe two months off, from May, but plans changed of course. Although I do have Michele here running things and I have that level of comfort, I do have a couple of real estate deals that I need to be here for.

Are you still doing real estate?

Yes. A lot of people know  because I don’t push it down their throats – only tequila! I’d like to tie in that business with this one. I’m with Costa Riviera, and we are part of AMPI. My broker is from California and needs to spend more time with family and he has asked me if I want to take over the brokerage. I think I will do that, it will give me flexibility to do advertising, maybe take on an assistant … It’s fun. When you can find the right property for the right person it’s exciting. When people move here buying for the first time they get really excited because it’s a life change. To be part of that, to guide them through that process, which is so different to our expectations in other parts of the world, is really rewarding.

Given your experience, would you recommend pre sale to your clients?

I would be very reluctant to sell pre sale. There are of course reputable developers and projects in PV. You have to have a significant hold back percentage as incentive. You can end up with a good deal, like I did, but it may not be for the faint hearted.

Can anyone sell property?

Here in Mexico it is still the wild wild West. Everybody has property to sell, every cab driver and his cousin! I am part of AMPI, the real estate association which requires ongoing education and training. I understand there is now a push on at national level for Mexican realtors to be licensed and I would agree with that. The difference in selling real estate here is you get involved in the closing process, you really are part of it, pushing the paperwork, making sure things are done correctly. That knowledge makes the difference, now I’m more aware of the legal and financial aspects.

You’ve recently celebrated your 40th birthday – congratulations! With hindsight, would you go through everything all over again?

Yes, I would. It’s been a helluva learning curve and it still is. Great experiences, it’s been an interesting ride. I’ve met fantastic people because of all of this – you meet everyone from saints to scoundrels!  And I wouldn’t have met them otherwise. And it’s such a good feeling when things go well and when everyone leaves after they’ve all had a great time.

Do you have any regrets?

I’m an optimistic person and I don’t regret anything. Some decisions, some life experiences cost a lot more than others, advice is free but experience you pay for in one way or another. A few things had I known I might have adjusted… I used to trust until proved wrong but now I’m more of a trust verify person.

I am looking forward to next season, the changes and the planning and my hope is to hit the ground running!

Thank you Colin, we wish you continued success with Breakers Bar!

 

 

Comments

  1. Colin, I loved the sentence, ” there’s a magnet under this Bay that just makes people feel welcome and comfortable. ” It is so true and those of us that live here feel the pull even if distanced.
    Good luck for the coming season! I’ll let you pour down my throat any sunset!

  2. Sonya Ennis says:

    I loved that sentence too, Barb. It made me smile because I feel that pull too, no matter if I’m sitting at Breakers in Bucerias or sitting in my living room back home in Saskatchewan. However, technically I’m not sure if it’s the pull of the bay itself or the pull of the village and the wonderful people, Mexican and otherwise, whom we have met and befriended there. There’s that small-town feeling of friendliness and safety and caring for each other. It’s always so great to arrive there and so hard to leave. It’s like our second home, and there are days we wonder if Bucerias could be our home.