At the top of a long mountain road, deep in the Costa Rican countryside, is a small, unassuming convenience store: Mini Super Economico.
As far as convenience stores go, Mini Super Economico is unremarkable; it’s more of a shed really, with a stock of a few dozen products, mostly staples, and a sleepy shopkeeper at the till.
One peculiarity, however, made this bodega notable: it was attached to a luxury home buzzing with labourers and an expensive new truck, all of which are unusual for the area and certainly outside the spending power of the small shop.
Where is the money coming from?
In December 2017 I went to Costa Rica for a family holiday.
My family would be at a beach-town hotel the week of Christmas, and I went down a week early because flights were cheaper and NYC is cold. I wanted to explore and get some work done. I didn’t know anything about Costa Rica and I don’t speak Spanish. I do speak Mandarin, which oddly, was more useful.
My Airbnb was a cozy little house on a country crossroad, the kind of place you’d describe as about a mile off from the middle of nowhere. The neighbourhood had a park and a church, but no restaurants. The only place to get food was a convenience store across the road: Super Economico, which unlike every other bodega I’d seen, was run by a Chinese family.
“They are putting all the other shops out of business”, my Airbnb host told me, “the Chinese customers all shop there.”
I visited the store and quickly realized it’s not just the spattering of local Chinese that shopped at Super Economico, it’s everybody. The store was bigger than the little shops along the highway, with spacious aisles, hundreds more products and slightly cheaper prices. In a country where the average income is less than $600 USD per month, saving a quarter or two on your groceries counts.
This Super Economico is run by a Chinese lady in her late 20s that goes by Jessica; her husband, son and mother all spend time at the store, but Jessica is definitely the boss.
Jessica is friendly, and seemed happy to speak Chinese with me. She told me her family had immigrated to Costa Rica from China’s Guangzhou province, and invited me to a lamb roast they were hosting that Saturday night, the perfect cover to continue my investigation.
I bided my time until the weekend, working, reading and continuing to shop at Super Economico. Like many others in town, I relied on that shop for three meals a day, plus snacks and water.
On the night of the roast I flip flopped over to the shop’s side-yard, where Jessica and her mom greeted me. I was happy to see a handful of locals, their silhouettes drunk against the fiery backdrop of charring meat. Leg of lamb in hand, I started collecting information.
- A new Chinese lady told me she had been in Costa Rica six years, and recently moved to the area to start working. Her answers were evasive, and I believe she was learning the ropes to run a Super Economico.
- My Airbnb host told me our Chinese friends had opened another shop recently, that the current shop had been open less than a month, and that someone else related to the business was off opening yet another shop.
- Jessica said she and her husband were going to a coastal city the next day to work on opening another location.
Impressed with the velocity this business seemed to be growing, I asked my Airbnb host the big question, just how many Super Economicos are there? “At least 10”, she whispered, “and they are all owned by one guy they call the King.”
The Future of Super Economico
Chinese business happens at warp speed. It’s bold, cutthroat, and often unrestrained. Comparatively, Costa Rican business seems to move at whatever damn pace it wants, without ambitious investments or even intention in growth. That’s fine, but I guarantee you the Chinese investor in Super Economico is going to win.
A quick search of Google Maps shows at least 10 Super Economico locations, ranging from the tiny shop I saw at the top of the mountain, through to large full-service grocery stores. No information is available on the most recent shops and those currently under construction.
Here are my predictions for the future of Super Economico:
- With several operating squads, the chain will open an additional 20 to 30 locations in 2018, an additional 30 to 50 in 2019, and 50+ in 2020;
- The current construction is “bare bones” to start building market share. In 2 to 3 years the King will renovate these locations to look more like what you’d expect from a 7-11 or CVS;
- The company will IPO, using modest revenues and the promise of future growth to attract investors;
- In the early 2020s, Super Economico will go international, opening dozens of locations in other central American countries, prioritizing those with relatively stable political and economic environments.
Or maybe the bodegas will rise up to challenge the King.
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