When the pandemic began, many of us dreamed about escaping the doldrums of everyday life to go live on a farm. One Colombian cocktail bar owner had the same vision, and with hard work and enthusiasm from his employees, #FromTheBarToTheFarm was born.
For visitors and locals alike, a typical Saturday night in Cartagena begins or ends at the buzzing cocktail bar Alquimico, a transformed mansion in the heart of the city’s historic district. There, you’ll find a dimly-lit bar where the percussion of bartenders shaking wildly infused experimental cocktails beats harmoniously to the DJ’s funky tunes. Up the grand staircase leading to the second floor, there is a second distinct cocktail menu (plus more music), and if you climb even further, you’ll reach the rooftop where the dancing doesn’t slow until closing hours.
In March of 2020, the music stopped and the party abruptly came to an end. “We were just about to celebrate our fourth anniversary and then the pandemic hit, and we were forced to close,” explains Jean Trinh, the founder and owner of Alquimico, “We didn’t know how long the lockdown would last, but my primary goal was to keep all of my staff alive.”
During the first four weeks of lockdown, Trinh continued to pay his staff and offered online masterclasses to further their professional development, keeping the team busy and mentally stimulated. But without any government aid, Trinh couldn’t continue to pay their wages long-term, and a crazy idea was born: “My sister suggested, why don’t you take the team to the farm in Filandia?” Before the pandemic, Trinh had purchased an 11-hectare coffee farm in Filandia, a town in Colombia’s lush coffee region nearly 900 kilometers away from Cartagena, with the dream of growing his own produce for Alquimico.
At the next Alquimico staff meeting over Zoom, Trinh informed his employees that although he couldn’t continue to pay their wages, he could provide their families accommodation and food if they joined him to live on the farm. This wouldn’t be a vacation, he explained—everyone would learn how to farm and live off the land.
His idea left the team speechless.
“His plan took me by surprise. It wasn’t anything I ever saw coming,” says Miguel Ángel Mora, a bartender at Alquimico. But he saw it as a reprieve for his wife and three-year-old son Mattias, providing a rent and expense-free escape for his family. “At first it felt like a crazy idea, but ultimately, going to the farm was the best decision we ever made,” says Mora.
One week after Trinh’s proposition, a group of 22 bartenders and their families packed up their lives in the Colombian capital and embarked on the 27-hour journey across the country to Filandia. And #FromTheBarToTheFarm was born.
Upon arrival, the team was faced with their first surprise: there was nowhere to live or sleep on Trinh’s farm. Swapping their cocktail shakers for shovels, they immediately got to work splitting themselves into two groups. “We had two options on the farm: permaculture or construction. Most of the women chose to work on the farming projects and the men on the construction of the house,” says Mora. During the first two months as they constructed their home, the staff lived on another farm 45 minutes away, commuting every morning by Jeep.
Without any agriculture or construction experience, the team learned from Colombian agronomists and farmers who also lived on the farm, Andres Puentes and his father Guillermo.
The days were difficult, starting at 5:30 a.m. when the team would wake up and sit down together for breakfast. “Bartenders aren’t used to waking up early or eating properly; these were the biggest adjustments for everyone,” Trinh laughs. Around two or three in the afternoon, everyone would finish their projects and enjoy the rest of the evening reading, relaxing, or riding horses before having dinner together as a family.
When Mora and his wife would finish work, they spent their evening with Mattias, teaching him about all of the local animals and plants. Everyone contributed to the farm, including the children, who had a small vegetable plot where they learned how to plant and water seeds.
Over the next four months, the staff accomplished a lot. They built a bee apiary with 10 hives and 130,000 bees to create organic honey for the bar, which would reduce their use of sugar. Four hectares of the farm were dedicated to a reforestation project of native trees to the region where they planted over 2,000 coffee trees and 120 fruit trees. They also developed their own greenhouse where they germinated different seeds for growing.
In one of Alquimico’s YouTube videos documenting the team’s experience, Juan Albarracin, a former bartender, reflects on the life-changing experience. “There’s a saying that there are three things every person should do in their life: plant a tree, have a child, and write a book. In our family not all of us are parents, maybe one of us will write a book, but as far as planting a tree, we can all cross that off the list. At least 300 times.”
This experience impacted the staff in many ways, explains Mora, who now sees the value of simplicity and enjoying life’s smaller moments. “I was able to spend every moment of the day with my family, something I missed when I was working at the bar,” he says. “But the happiest guy on the farm was my son.”
Trinh also reflects fondly on the experience: “Looking back over the past year, and seeing how my staff have changed to become more environmentally conscious, healthier, and happier—that is what makes this project a success for me.”
Today, Alquimico has re-opened and the bartenders have returned to Cartagena. The team is busy developing a new rooftop cocktail menu inspired by Filandia where all of the ingredients will be sourced entirely from the farm. “It’s so important to understand that the farm is a long-term project. It doesn’t end now—the farm becomes our pantry forever,” explains Mora. Andreas and another farmer remain on the farm to maintain and harvest the crops, and Trinh makes the trip back to the farm for a few weeks a month.
While Alquimico has emerged from the pandemic more sustainable, Trinh hopes for a more sustainable future across the global hospitality industry. He acknowledges that for most restaurant owners and bars across the world, owning a farm to sustainably source ingredients may not be a feasible option. “My advice is to think first of your people and your community and the small changes you can make at scale,” he says, “whether that be looking at your supply chain and opting for smaller local businesses or eliminating non-organic produce.”
“Projects like ours have inspired more sustainable initiatives, and I think Cartagena is more sustainable at this moment,” says Mora. “Everyone in the industry is working together for a better future.”