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Interview: Co-founding a Kunming institution with Colin Flahive

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Longtime Kunming transplant Colin Flahive is best known as co-owner of Salvador's Coffee House, a restaurant he started with friend Kris Ariel in 2002. Running a dining and social fixture for well over a decade, more recently, the pair founded a health food company called Dali Bar and opened a second sustainable food eatery called Salvador's Loft.

Between managing this group of companies and raising a family, Flahive has authored three books, the memoir Great Leaps, and two novels, When the Cuckoo Calls and Sunset Over Pine Ridge. He also finds time to enjoy some of things that originally drew him to Yunnan. Rock climbing and travel figure high on the to-do list. Occasionally escaping China in search of fresh powder skiing is also a passion.

As part of GoKunming's continuing interview series with Yunnan Foreign Business Club (YFBC) entrepreneurs, we sat down with Flahive to talk about what keeps him in Kunming and how he sees the business world South of the Clouds evolving.

GoKunming: For those who haven't met you, could you tell us a little about yourself?

Colin Flahive: I'm from Colorado. I like mountains. I like to climb up steep rock and ski down deep powder snow. Kunming has at least half of that. I came to China 20 years ago as a 21 year-old backpacker and returned a couple times for my undergraduate thesis research before moving to Dali Old Town in 2002.

Kris and I opened Salvador's Coffee House in Dali in 2003 and partnered with two friends to open in Kunming in 2004. In 2013 we partnered with Dan Siekman to start Dali Bar, a packaged brand focused on healthy energy foods.

GK: So in nearly 20 years of experience, what's kept you in Yunnan province?

Flahive: I went to Dali in 2001 just for a visit and returned in 2002 to study kung-fu at the Wuwei Temple up in the mountains. I made some very close friends in Dali during that time and that's also when I met Kris. Legend has it that the first time Kris and I met he nearly knocked me out in a boxing match. I'll admit things went green and fuzzy, but I never actually went unconscious.

Yunnan has the mountains and food I crave and the people I love. There are certainly other parts of the world I could be happy in, but there are few where I could have had the chance to start businesses like we have. I think we showed up at the right place at the right time and got lucky with the right space. I never planned to live in a city of any sort, but right now home is where Salvador's is and so Kunming feels like home.

GK: While running Salvador's and Dali Bar, have you developed a specific business philosophy?

Flahive: Kris and I are very different people, but we are very unified in how we want our businesses to be run. The way we do business doesn't really have an organized business philosophy, but we both deeply care about what we are doing. We care about the people we are doing it with and we care about the people we are doing it for. And it might sound cheesy, but love is a big part of it. And if that is too cheesy for you then you might not want to keep reading because I can't help but cheese out when talking about our team.

For Salvador's we have made every decision trying to think about what would make our customers, our employees and ourselves healthy and happy. And I think that our philosophy has helped build a successful business for a number of reasons. It is certainly something that customers can appreciate, but it is also something that built up a team based upon trust, loyalty and motivation.

We have a team that is self-motivated and actually likes to come to work. I too love arriving at Salvador's each morning and chatting with our team about whatever problems need to be solved that day and working with them on solutions. One thing you quickly learn about running a restaurant is that it seems that you are always jumping from one crisis to another, but together we manage to get through them all.

We have amazing employees and we have been so happy to get to know them and experience their major life achievements together as a kind of family. We truly are a family of sorts and I think everyone who works here would agree. If we didn't all enjoy working together here we would not have lasted so long. It is at the core of everything we do and I'm so proud to be a part of it and proud to watch everyone on our team step up to share the joys and burdens of keeping this business going for 14 years now.

Salvador's Coffee House staff during the first year in Kunming
Salvador's Coffee House staff during the first year in Kunming

GK: You've been in Yunnan, doing business, for a long time. What do you find most challenging day-to-day?

Flahive: In general Yunnan has the ability to inspire a laid-back lifestyle... Dali especially. So our biggest challenge was transitioning from a small café that we more or less ran for fun into a business that needs to handle hundreds of customers each week. In general it is not easy to keep up a busy restaurant and sometimes it feels like we just shift from one crisis to another. But we are lucky to be surrounded by helpful people and a solid base of customers to keep us going even when things get extra difficult.

GK: I'm sure there have been serious ups and downs over the years, but what, if anything, do you feel is you and Kris' crowning achievement with running Salvador's?

Flahive: Building our team is certainly what I am most proud of. We've been able to employ profit sharing, health protections, education opportunities and travel opportunities to everyone on our team. We have created opportunities for people who might not otherwise have had them. And as of this year we were able to hand over some ownership of the company to all employees. Though this often meant sacrificing profits, we have built a more solid business because of it and the benefits are not something we could ever really put a price tag on.

There was a time one night on a beach in Thailand three years ago when it really felt like we had hit the apex of our business. We had just cracked open a bottle of rum and we sat in a circle with our employees taking sips out of the bottle and telling stories as the waves crashed next to us. It was the first time all but Kris and I had seen the ocean. It was the first time most had traveled beyond Kunming or the villages that they came from. But we were all there together laughing, getting a little tipsy and just loving each other's company. I thought we could never achieve more than that. But then our company trip to Nepal happened...

Salvador's Coffee House staff trip to Nepal in 2018
Salvador's Coffee House staff trip to Nepal in 2018

GK: So you took almost all of your staff to Nepal in 2018. Is that trip the highlight of everything, or is your best memory something that happened further back in the past?

Flahive: Aha, you'll just have to buy the book for that one [laughs]. But there is a specific moment from Nepal, when we were rafting, that somehow sums everything up for me.

The rapids were way bigger than I had expected and the water way moving way faster than I felt comfortable with. But the rafting guides assured us that it was very rare for anyone to fall into the water. I reminded them that almost no one in our group could swim, but they assured me it wouldn't be a problem. Everyone still had sore legs from the 45-kilometer trek we had just taken on over the last three days through the Himalayan Mountains outside of Pokhara, and everyone boarded the five rafts allotted to the Salvador's team with stiff legs.

We had gone through the brief training and safety course, but right off the bat things weren't going too smoothly. It was difficult for many on our staff to understand the English paddling commands that the guides were shouting at us. But everyone plowed through the first big rapids to cheers and laughter as the guides teased and splashed everyone with water. But things got serious as the next set of rapids approached.

Kris's raft was ahead and I could see his team get stranded on a boulder right in the middle of a rough section. The boat following behind crashed straight into them and rolled up on top. The crashing water caught the back edge and flipped it up higher. To my shock and terror, I saw two of our staff get swept away right into the rough rapids. One guide struggled to toss the rescue rope out to them but it was too late. They were already too far down river.

I was frozen. There was nothing I could do. And I too had to dig my paddle in and make sure our boat navigated the section without trouble. And just as we crashed through I could see A Yan and Luo Mengxi struggling to use the life jackets in a way that would keep their faces out of the water. There was a short break in the rapids for the rescue kayaks to get out to meet them but they were still careening down into the next set of rough terrain. The last I could see was them grabbing onto the edge of the small kayak just before tumbling down the white water.

Just the day earlier Luo Mengxi had told me that she didn't want to participate in the raft trip. I made an argument for why she should and told her that there was no need to worry. I told her that she wouldn't fall out. I had failed her. And my heart sank with fear and guilt. I could barely comprehend our guides paddling commands as we too pushed through the roughest bit. I had no idea what happened to A Yan and Luo Mengxi but my thoughts immediately expected the worst.

Relief poured over our team as we reached a sandbank to rest. Everyone was huddled around A Yan and Luo Mengxi and consoling them. They were uninjured but for some scrapes. I too went to hug Luo Mengxi as my eyes filled with guilty tears. I felt so guilty that I could barely contain it. But just a few days later she told me it was the highlight of her trip. So I'm sure there is a moral in there somewhere.

GK: You've maintained a Yunnan-based business for well more than a decade, founded a second successful venture and taken trips overseas together with your entire crew. What's left, or what do you see on the horizon?

Flahive: In my ideal future, Dali Bar products are available in every convenience store, grocer, and sports shop in China. Salvador's is mostly staff-owned and I get to do in each day just to enjoy the place and the people and maybe experiment with some new stuff in the kitchen.

GK: You and Kris have seen a ridiculous amount of change occur in Kunming over the years. How do you see the city evolving further over the next several years?

Flahive: It's just too hard to say. Things change so damn fast that it's difficult to gauge. I kind of expect the unexpected each day so it is hard to nail down any foreseeable future. I hope China is open to international business and culture and that the rest of the world is treating China in the same way. Yunnan is an amazing place and could serve as a landing point for people all over the world and I really hope it can do so in a positive way.

And that is partly why I joined the YFBC. I hope that it can serve as a positive representation of foreign businesses in Kunming. I see the YFBC as a great avenue for successful foreign businesses here to band together and take time away from profits to help out the less fortunate. We'll be working with the YFBC again this year for the annual DT Fundraiser for children with heart disease. Hopefully together we can do more to have a positive influence on the communities supporting us.

Back in the Dali days
Back in the Dali days

Images: Colin Flahive

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Comments

'I had failed her. And my heart sank with fear and guilt.': I can get close to empathising with that feeling. Prior to leaving Kunming, and after years of success, almost an entire class failed to reach the level they desperately needed. Regardless of the real external cause and the failure of third parties, the sickening feeling of panic and guilt in the pit of the stomach is real and can return unexpectedly at odd moments even years later.

Hey all, if you so desire to read those two short novels I've written I've made the digital download free on Amazon for the next 4 days. If you do read them, please leave an honest review. Cheers

www.amazon.com/dp/B01F04JVBE

Will get to Sunset, on paper, soon; have read Colin's other 2 books and both are excellent.

Above: Good interview of good dude, fine writer, good employer; decent working conditions, dedicated staff and management, good food, social conscience. Very glad to know him over the years - have no idea of his boxing, but I believe in his climbing. And then there's the good food and Sal's as a social institutional.

Two very bright and energetic young lads. Well done. And I recommend When the Cuckoo Calls. Very well written

Seriously great article on a group of seriously great human beings - treating people with dignity and respect. Company HR and executives could learn a lot from doing case-studies on the Salvador's journey on how to treat people with dignity and respect - while also being moderately profitable.

Now you all know how companies can afford to pay executives and board members those ludicrous salaries and bonuses. They treat staff as disposable commodities as opposed to human beings and or family, creating an environment of zero if not negative corporate and or brand loyalty.

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