Salento, a picturesque town perched in the mountains, surrounded by coffee farms and the Valle de Cocora, is the very definition of a small town. It’s the kind of place where you couldn’t get lost if you tried, where strangers quickly become familiar faces. I stayed on the outskirts of town at an Eco-farm/hostel and between the other backpackers staying there or those I would meet in town, a common questions asked by all: “have you had a burger from Brunch, yet?”
There are signs with big white arrows pointing the way to Brunch, proclaiming in english, “a different choice of international food.” The signs may detour travelers looking for an authentic Colombian experience, but word-of-mouth (which is rampant, persuasive, and convincing) will have almost every backpacker following the arrows to a table at Jeff Bailey’s restaurant.
There are two small rooms covered in testimonials left by previous patrons. Some entries just list their name, date, and country of origin, while others include drawings and healthy doses of praise for the meals they just consumed. After weeks of beans and rice, questionable street food, or meals that I cobbled together with ingredients that didn’t need much time stewing in a kitchen, I sat down and ordered one of the best black bean burgers I’ve ever ordered.
When the waiter asked if there was anything else he could bring me, I asked if I could speak to the owner. Moments later, Jeff Bailey emerged from the kitchen wearing a white apron over a light blue polo shirt and immediately confessed that it had been an incredibly busy day. Thankfully, Jeff agreed to share his story with me.
Name: Jeff Bailey
From: Bend, Oregon
Age: Would rather not say
Languages: English and a little Spanish
When did you first start traveling to Colombia? About 15 years ago.
What was your experience like then? It was very different from now. It was, I guess considered more dangerous. You couldn’t take a bus, like for instance, from here to Medellin or Bogotá. It wasn’t widely suggested. So, you had to fly from city to city. That’s one change, but the people were very friendly . . . always very friendly. I don’t know it just felt . . . it was a beautiful area and very peaceful.
What was the reason that brought you to Colombia? Well, a friend of mine had come through but, he was visiting other South American countries and he told me how beautiful it was in Colombia and that is probably what intrigued me. That was years ago. He had gone through Bogotá and he actually experienced some danger there then . . . they used to do a lot of dusting, the taxi drivers and that happened to him. But, he said as a whole, in the smaller towns the people were wonderful and nice and that intrigued me. I was raising my kids alone at the time and I had a little bit of break, so I bought a ticket and came here and when I had to leave, if I hadn’t had children I probably wouldn’t have left. That’s how comfortable I felt, but when I left, it felt like something was missing. I really liked the closeness of everyone, how they live, how they appreciate what they have. . .
How did you discover Salento? This is where most of the Colombians come . . . you know I don’t even know why they come here, but like in the States we would go to Magic Mountain or something like that. This is what they do. Whoever I would be staying with would show me this place . . . this town. I came here a couple of times and you know it’s beautiful. And back then, I was the only . . . what would you say? Gringo? And it was like I would get a lot of stares back then. And then every few years I would return through here, just driving through an hour or two hours and every year you could tell there were more and more foreigners . . . and now its just common.
How was setting up a business in Colombia as a foreigner? You could actually rent a place and start the business before you had to do anything. Actually, its more difficult getting your visa to stay here. So, you have to figure out how you’re going to stay in Colombia, more so than opening a business. They do have their laws where you’re supposed to go and register the business, the name, pay the taxes, get your inspection and start the process . . . but, they don’t really do that here. It’s kind of the opposite. So, I was actually open for two or three months before they came in and said, “what are you doing?” It was more that the competition was turning me in and saying, “hey, who’s this?” You know, that kind of thing. Then, I said, “okay, I’ll go get my papers.” I went to Armenia and said, “here I am. I’m a business.” It was fairly simple.
Are you a permanent resident of Colombia? No, I have a business visa.
I’ve only been in town four days, and I have heard the name of your restaurant mentioned from at least a half-dozen different people, so you have found a niche for the traveler who is looking for comfort food, or just a comfortable environment that isn’t going to be stressful if they don’t know Spanish – was that what your concept for the restaurant; a comfortable environment for travelers? Yeah, it was an experiment. I had moved here without, well without thinking of doing this business right away or, at all. I was staying at a hostel and the backpackers or tourists would ask me to cook something different for them, or I would make myself peanut butter and they would ask if they could buy it from me. And I thought, well maybe this idea would work. It was a gamble, I had no idea it . . . The writing on the wall, I mean, I started seeing people from all over the world come in and I’m like man, I would like to see them leave something. And so I just asked if they would write their names, where they were from, and the date. And then they started leaving messages about the food and other comments. That’s how it took off. People like to leave a part of themselves, they enjoyed their stay here and it kind of gives them comfort to know that there is something here and if they come back or send friends . . . people started taking photos and putting it on the web and showing their friends, “look this is where I was.”
I’m from Brooklyn and the part of Brooklyn that I live in, the term gentrification has created a healthy debate with both pros and cons. I’m not sure that you can really define what is happening in Salento as gentrification, but I’m curious if there are any frustrations with the local community about their town becoming a backpacker magnet? So far they’ve had a good experience with foreigners. They don’t want to change and they resent anyone trying to change their ways. They like the atmosphere the way it is, and so far, that’s been the case. If that ever changes then there will be a resistance I guarantee it, but so far the foreigners have been pretty respectful and so they have been accepted fairly well, I think. At, first they resented me opening a business here because I’m more open than the other businesses here, but they saw that I live the way they do. I don’t have a car, I don’t do anything out of the ordinary. I live on pesos only. And, they see that, so I’ve made a lot of close friends. If I need help they are right there to help. At first, that wasn’t the case, but now they can see that I contribute to their economy. I only buy from the locals here, and they appreciate that.
How has the community here in Salento changed in the fifteen years since you first started visiting? Oh there has been a remarkable change. There is more money here than there used to be. . . brought in from . . . like they would go to the States to live and then bring back the money and invest here. I mean the jeeps are full everyday with backpackers and foreigners and that’s adding money to their pockets and keeping them busy, and that’s a big change . . . just in the last few years. It’s not been that long and it’s getting larger and larger with backpackers, and I think they know that’s helping their situation and changing things in a good way. At least, that’s what I think and that’s what I’m hearing any way. I’m not hearing any disdain or hatred, or “those damn gringos.” None of that, I don’t hear that.
Do you view yourself as Colombian or a member of the community? Absolutely, I spend my money here. I live here. This is where I spend my time. I don’t see myself as a Colombian, but I see myself as part of the community, or I would like for them to think of me that way, and it seems that’s the way that I’m accepted.
Reading all the comments on the wall, you mentioned that people like to leave the notes. . . I also read almost all of the reviews on Trip Advisor – I don’t think I found anything negative. In fact, other Americans who have eaten here said the burgers and fries are better here than they are back home, do you plan to take this model to the States at some point? Absolutely not. I’m working hard, this is hard work. Harder than if I were doing it in the States, because there is not a lot of help. People say things like, I should do a chain and start one in Armenia, and no, no . . . this is hard work. What you see here, is seven days a week, fourteen hours a day. That is how you do it, and I knew that going in. Totally committed. I see other businesses opening and then they hire a bunch a people and then they walk around like . . . look at me, I’m the owner. I mean, I’ve been here this long, and I just bought a brand new Fryalator. I mean, two million pesos, that’s a big investment and I would say that’s the first thing I would say that’s modern here, and that’s just for the quality. You know two million pesos is a lot of money when you are only making pesos. I didn’t bring the money from the States, I mean you can get cocky and bring all your money here and have a heyday with it, but I don’t think that’s fair. I think you should do it the way they do it, and if you can’t, you shouldn’t be doing it – in my opinion.
What is it about Colombia that inspired you to want to live and operate a business here? The closeness of the people, how tranquil they are. They are not in a hurry for anything, which can drive you crazy, as well. If you want something today, you’re not getting it. And that could be a lesson for me, because anything I wanted, I could have it immediately, and now I can’t. So, you know you have to learn patience and that’s part of what intrigued me about this country, because you know, if you want it today, you aren’t going to get it! “See you later,” you know and you’re going – hey that’s the way we should all be living, instead of buying everything on credit and having it right now, that’s not good in a way. We’ve lost sight of many things where we’re from, and they don’t know any different, and they don’t want it any different and that intrigues me because, I mean I had four cars and a beautiful house and this and that, but you’re always chasing . . . a new computer comes out and you’ve got to have it. Did you need it? no. That’s one thing that I had to evaluate, you know, do I need all this crap? And seeing how they live, fifteen years ago . . . you know, visiting here really made me think differently. It really did change how I thought, just by visiting here and seeing how they appreciate what they have. They don’t throw things away – they fix it . . . you make it work and that’s a different way of thinking.
This experience, has it met your expectations? Yeah, however, I still have a long way to go to learn patience, and learn what I came here for – yeah a long way to go.
Is there anything about living here, that makes you miss certain things from back home? The only thing I really miss is family. All of my kids are there and not here. I can’t really travel back there because of this . . . I would have to close at this point. As far as the cooking of the food, a Colombian learning how to cook American food is harder than you think.
You do most of the cooking? I do 99.9% of the cooking. I’m training one person, and you don’t realize how difficult American food is to cook until you try to teach it. Their eggs are a little brown and rubbery, which is good for them, and a lot of people like that . . . and the hamburgers, if you’ve had their meat, it’s beat to death and dry and burnt, and we don’t do that. So, they are learning all of these recipes of mine, and that will take a long time. If I see someone who could mimic everything I that I do, then I would probably take some time off, but otherwise, I’m pretty committed. I do my little jaunts to Armenia when it’s really slow, otherwise I’m here all the time.
I like to ask travelers this question, and I think its well-suited for you as well, since you have so much interaction with travelers. Do you have any advice for someone who is thinking about coming to Colombia or planning a long-term backpacking trip throughout South America? Just buy a ticket and start. As they’ll find and as others have found: it’s very safe and the majority of the people here are looking after them. When I came here the first time, they wondered why I was here . . . and I told him them I just wanted to visit your country and I was told that you don’t do that. . . that my country hates their country and they wanted to know why was that . . . and, I said “I don’t know.” I couldn’t really answer the question. That being said, the changes that are happening . . . Colombians want their country known as a peaceful place, a safe place. A place that people can come and visit. You know they want to convey that this is a good country. They have their problems, but they look at our news, and they say, “don’t go there.” They don’t have school shootings, post office shootings, not at all. So yeah, that’s what I would like people to know, come here and experience how safe it really is and tell your friends . . . but, respect their culture. Don’t come here and try to change it. I’m not competing with them with what I sell in this restaurant. I mean, I highly recommend going up there (to the main plaza) and eating their food. So, yeah . . . there you go.