Pirates of the Pacific: Mario Quiroga in Quito, Ecuador

Pirates of the Pacific: Mario Quiroga, Owner of Los Choris Franchise

This is part of the continuing series of Ecuador expat interviews, under the banner of “Pirates of the Pacific”. Each will feature a new story of a long journey to reach the shores of Ecuador. We want to always inform and occasionally entertain, with an emphasis on no holds barred candor. We want real people, with real stories. The good, the bad, the ugly. We want to get to know them personally and experience Ecuador through the eyes of our fellow Pirates.

The raw nature of these interviews forced a difficult decision upon me. The series would read better and be more journalistically entertaining, written in narrative format. However, the raw energy and candor could be lost in translation. I have instead chosen the more cumbersome, but infinitely more real, Q&A approach to the Pirate’s tale. Walking the plank, today is Mario Quiroga (MQ) . He is an Argentine native, who has come ashore in Ecuador.

HGQ: Mario, thank you for taking time from your busy schedule. So, tell me a little about yourself. When did you first arrive here in Ecuador?

MQ: I came here when I was only 20 years old. Even as I say that, it is hard to imagine.  Well, technically that’s wrong.

HGQ: Odd way to start an interview, how is that “wrong”?

MQ: Well, originally I came to Ecuador as an infant. Hardly was a personal choice.  My father, who shares my name, Mario Quiroga, was a well-known Argentine soccer player.  He came to Ecuador, when I was an infant, under contract to play for one of the Ecuadorian soccer clubs.  When his contract expired, the family returned to Argentina.

HGQ: A bit more clear now.  So, how did you end up back in Ecuador at the age of 20? Did you have fond memories of Ecuador and yearned to return?

MQ: No, nothing like that. Was too small to have formed such vivid memories. Actually, I was following in my father’s footsteps.  Like he, I was a player in the Argentine soccer league and was offer a contract to play for one of the Ecuadorian soccer clubs. Like my father before me, I cam here to play.

HGQ: Well, that is more than a little bit of a coincidence. Quite a history your family has with both Argentine and Ecuadorian soccer.

MQ: Yes, the history continues.

HGQ: How so?

MQ: Well, my father, now back in Ecuador after a long absence, is currently the Asistente Tecnico (AT) for the Universidad Catolica soccer club.

HGQ: Wow! The soccer history continues.  So, when did you end up leaving the sport?

MQ: Shortly after I blew out my knee…again.  It was bad. I had played on a bum knee for a good part of my career, with on and off again injuries. However, the last time I blew out my knee, I somehow knew it was over.

HGQ: For an athlete that must be a devastating moment.

MQ: I can’t deny that, but then again, I have never been one to dwell. I move on to the positive things in life.

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HGQ: Well, clearly one obvious positive thing in your life, the Los Choris restaurant franchise. Not just because I am interviewing you, but your restaurant is my favorite, whenever I come to Quito. I eat here all the time.

MQ: I am personally not here enough, as I hop around from locale to locale. However, my wife is here most of the time and she mentioned you come in here frequently.

HGQ: Come on…where else am I going to get that awesome Argentine Chorpian.  I am a Chicago boy back in the USA. The sausage family is revered in ChiTown.

MQ: I see.

HGQ: Anyways, so tell me, how did this whole Los Choris thing get started?

MQ: [Laughter] Had to believe how we got started, looking back on it now.  Basically, we used to cook the Choris at the house I shared with a few friends, here in Quito. It was just, you know, for personal consumption. Then one of my friends, who would go on to be my first partner, made the suggestion that these Choris I cooked were good enough to sell.  Never one to pass up an opportunity, I said, “Sure, why not?”. Frankly, we could also use the extra cash back then.  So, there we went, we put up a crude roadside sign and advertised our Choris [more laughter].  You know, we had bought a ton of the things, but in my mind I was thinking, “We sure are going to have to eat a whole lot of Choris after this.” You know, maybe I expected to sell 10 of them, 20 at most.  The first day, we sold 100 of the things.  Just the basic Argentine dish of Chorizo in between two pieces of french bread. Nothing different or elaborate and 100 sold in hours.  It was amazing. We couldn’t believe it.

HGQ: Listen, hard for me to believe hearing it, let alone experiencing it. So, what then?

MQ: More choripans. We figured it had to be a fluke, so we tried it again and sure enough, the same 100 gone, only quicker.  Tried offering 200 on another day and by then, folks were pulling up to the house and saying,  “We heard about you…you’re the Choris guys.” A name was born…Los Choris.  Amazing.

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HGQ:  I have to honestly tell you, I am sort of sitting at the edge of my sitting, just waiting to ask what next?

MQ: Well, pretty quickly it became clear that folks loved our choripans and that this could be a real money-making business. Of course, you need some money to make more and we were still living a pretty basic lifestyle at the time. So, my partner and I considered options and we gambled. We decided to go mainstream commercial. Couldn’t keep selling choripans from our house. The traffic congestion alone was raising eyebrows in the neighborhood.  So, we pooled our money together and opened our first establishment. It was a tiny little place. Maybe 30m2 at the most. Crowded it could sit a maximum capacity of 18.  The parrilla, you know, the grill, upon which you cook the chorizos, well, it was physically outside of the actual restaurant area.

HGQ: Sort of like your own personal grill cookout then, not all that different than back at the house.

MQ: Well, still better, but, yes…not all that different.

HGQ: When did this all happen?

MQ: Well, that was back in 2006.

HGQ: You’ve come a long way in only 8 years.

MQ: We sure have and I am very thankful for it all.

HGQ: What were those early days like, after you’d gone commercial?

MQ: Whew, long hours. Very long hours.  I would work from like 6:00 AM to 2:00 AM the following day. The place was close to where I lived, but if I got 3 hours of sleep per night, it was a lot.  That’s basically seven days per week. The freedom of owning your own business [Laughter].

HGQ: That’s a gruelling schedule.

MQ: It sure was and all the while our business was exploding. Just growing massively, but in a completely unstructured and largely disorganized sort of way. We weren’t so much managing our business, as our business was managing our lives.

HGQ: I can see that. So, is that how you grew from one locale to so many?

MQ: Not even close. Actually, as the success of the business was taking off, my original partner decided he wanted to move on to other things. It was abrupt, which was a problem, but at the same time he handled the whole thing with a great deal of class. It was sort of like, “Pay me when and as you can.”  Still, it was quite a shock. However, as luck would have it, a client of mine, who happened to be a gastronomy professor at a local prestigious and private university, heard of my situation and he said, “I want in. I’d be interested in being a partner for the business.”  So, there it was. He invested some fund sin the business and then a separate friend of mine, from my home country of Argentina, also bought into the business as a partner.  The additional cash infusion was ideal to expand our existing commercial location.  We expanded to a seating capacity of 50, brought the kitchen from the outside, to the inside and have it the shape, as well as name, by which we would ultimately be recognized – Los Choris. That was the real birth of the business, in some semblance of what it is today.

HGQ: Did that include the sports theme and everything else?

MQ: Not as extensive as today, but yes.

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HGQ: So, I have a sense there is much more to this story. What next?

MQ: Well, it was precisely at this juncture that the whole concept of franchising the business arose. We had so much success and we felt it was something that could be replicated.  However, with little franchise operation experience, I felt it was time to learn. So, I kept working full-time at the business, while simultaneously taking courses leading to a certificate in Franchise Operations and Management. It was an eye-opener. It not only gave me the necessary tools to run a franchise operation, but also showed me better ways we could run the core existing business.  It was like the early days of the business all over again. A lot of nights with three hours of sleep.

HGQ: What did you do first…or next.

MQ: Labored to create the Franchise Operations Manual. Had to be sure the vision was retained and passed on to the franchisees.

HGQ: What came next.

MQ: The unexpected, again, really. As word got out that we were thinking of franchising, offers came from everywhere. We even had an offer from the venerable Group KFC, which has a stronghold here. Many of the offers, but especially the one from KFC were very enticing. However, any of this doffers would have, in essence, rested control of the franchise operations from my partners and I. A different decision was reached. We decided to keep the franchise label and sell the first franchise to an operator, located in one of the most prestigious neighborhoods in Quito.  The first franchise was opened in the Gonzalez Suarez area.

HGQ: That location still exists today, doesn’t it?

MQ: Yes, it does.  Most of our locations are still in existence and doing very well.  The Gonzalez Suarez location originally was able to seat 120 patrons, which eventually was expanded to the current size of 160 patrons. It is still the largest and one of the most productive locations for us.

HGQ: What franchise came next?

MQ: [Laughter] You know,  it gets a bit unclear as to the order, everything was moving so fast. What I know is that by the end of 2010, we had 8 operating franchises, all going full speed ahead.  You’d think that would feel great, but for the second time in the life of the business, I felt our growth rate was spinning out of control.  I have to admit that 2011 was a pivotal year. Exciting, fast-paced, much growth, but also a constant struggle to improve the professionalism and standardize operations across our chain of Los Choris.

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HGQ:  How did you respond to this renewed challenge?

MQ: Well, 2012 was the year that really finally brings this saga to a close [Laughter].  Actually, it is in itself a long story, but I will spare. In short, after much long-term dialog, Los Choris entered into a major, full-scale partnership with the Ekos Group.  One of the most respected, 100% privately owned, corporations in Ecuador.

HGQ: Sure, I read their magazine publication regularly. Genuinely one of my favorite magazines to read and a real “must read” for any entrepreneur, would-be entrepreneur or business executive in Ecuador.  So, talk about the transformation, before Ekos and after?

MQ: Well, the team from Ekos, to their credit, just jumped right into the entire business model, in order to develop our business plan for the next 10 years and beyond. It was a massive undertaking. Immediately, one of the things they suggested was the need for greater specialization across operational functions at Los Choris.  I am talking everything, from a new look and division for corporate departments, to a break down and reevaluation of varying management functions. This was a massive and much needed overhaul. It explained, a great deal, why we were feeling the growth spinning out of control. Not enough separation, specialization and control mechanisms in place.  They even fine tuned our marketing initiatives and the physical space layout of our restaurants. It was a fascinating and energizing experience.

HGQ: Happy with the changes?

MQ: Extremely happy. Hard to have a better partner than Ekos.  They have taken a good business model and made it great for all of us.  The partnership is working splendidly.

HGQ: Sounds like a happy ending, to a long saga.

MQ: It definitely has been and I am very thankful for the good fortune.

HGQ: And all your hard work and sleepless nights as well.

MQ: That too [Laughter].

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HGQ: So, a soccer star and now a restaurant entrepreneur, quite the career.

MQ: I wouldn’t say “soccer star”. My knees never allowed my career to progress to that level, but I was very fortunate to have played.

HGQ: So, pretend your father will never read this, of the two accomplishments, which is the one you are most proud of?

MQ: Neither.

HGQ: That surprises me. Why?

MQ: Because my proudest accomplishment is being a good husband and the father to my little girl. If there is one thing I have contributed to that makes me most proud is having my daughter. Family is very important.

HGQ: Well, on that note, I will close this interview wishing you and your family the best in all the excitement I am sure that is left to come. Here is to you having many more hours with your family and many less sleepless nights.

MQ: I could get used to that, now.

HGQ One last question, as I forgot to ask.  What do you like most about life in Ecuador and what has been the biggest adjustment.

MQ: The first answer is easy. I love the people of Ecuador, especially the people of Quito. They have welcomed me and my family into their country as if it were my home. For that, I will be forever grateful. As to what I’ve struggled to adjust…that’s a harder question. Look, things are  different here than in Argentina.  There is a level of progress achieved in Argentina, which we have not yet achieved here. Then again, if you ask me would I rather be here in the direction we are going, or in Argentina…I would pick Ecuador. Don’t get me wrong, with the current real estate prices and business prices in Argentina, if money were endless, I wouldn’t mind starting a little business in Buenos Aires and investing in some real estate.  However, to answer your question, I think the hardest adjustment here is the pace of things. I am used to instant responses and instant actions in Argentina. Here, people take their time…things don’t get done as fast.  I understand it is a necessary adjustment, but as things progress slowly here, the needs of your business often can’t wait. It is progress I am sure will come to Ecuador soon, but it is about the only real adjustment I’ve had to make. Otherwise, I cannot complain. Ecuador continues to treat my business, my family and myself very well.

Note: Find all the information you want for Los Choris at http://www.loschoris.com