By Robert Bradley
There are many fine restaurants in Cuenca, and with the pandemic finally beginning to be under control, there will be many more opening their doors soon. We couldn’t be more pleased.
Those who will soon open or are considering doing so are fortunate to have two brilliant restaurateurs from which to draw inspiration: Lindsey, and her brother Adam Burton, chefs and owners of San Sebas Cafe, on San Sebastian Plaza.
Lindsey Burton had already lived in numerous countries while under the wings of her missionary parents; she was born in Hawaii and later lived in New Zealand, Belize, the Philippines, Japan, Texas, and Oregon. She also spent some time in Cambodia.
Lindsey’s parents, Bob and Mary Burton, were involved in “Youth with a Mission”, an international volunteer movement operating in more than 180 countries. They began visiting Ecuador in 2005 to work with young people outside Quito. In May 2009, the Burtons moved to Cuenca and began working in the surrounding villages bringing in medical and vision teams which provided eye exams and needed glasses.
“My parents called me and told me I had to visit Cuenca,” Lindsay said, “They knew I would love it.” In 2010, she made the trip and quickly fell in love with the small-town feel of the city. She went back to the US, sold everything, and moved to Cuenca with the dream of opening a cafe.
Establishing San Sebas took over nine months. “I had my eye on this location for a while. When it became available, I got it,” recalled Burton.
Once she rented the space, Lindsay still faced many obstacles. Opening a business in a new country proved to be taxing. She had to deal with permits, contractors, renovations, and visas — all with limited Spanish skills.
“I worked full-time doing the renovation and setting up the place and at night I worked in other restaurants around town until two in the morning.” Then, she would wake up early the following morning to do it all again. In the meantime, she worked to improve her Spanish. “It was really hard,” she says.
She soon persuaded her brother, Adam, to leave California and move to Cuenca to do the bookkeeping, create a social media platform, and develop an advertising campaign.
On November 3, 2011, San Sebas Cafe opened its doors.
The Burton’s did the painstaking and essential work of developing a solid business plan before opening the doors. Their plan was straightforward: appeal to the local clientele by offering comfort food properly prepared and served with care. San Sebas was never meant to be an ego-driven joint where the chef is interested in showing off his or her culinary skills, it was designed as a classic breakfast and lunch cafe that would appeal to families.
For breakfast, San Sebas offers bagels, pancakes, french toast, eggs, yogurt, bacon, and sausage, a full menu is served all day that includes hamburgers, sandwiches, wraps, salads, and homemade soups. Desserts are homemade cheesecakes, cookies, and brownies.
This classic design set the tone that has served them well.
“We are fortunate. 100 percent of our original staff is with us today. By offering living scale wages, and treating our employees as full-time workers with all the benefits they are entitled to, we are been able to move forward with a well-trained and reliable staff that is eager to grow the business.”
The Burtons show equal respect for their guests. Since the pandemic began, San Sebas Cafe has been thoroughly sanitized by professional cleaners every month and every employee is tested for the virus, as well.
However, it is the future that is so exciting. In order to guarantee that only the finest ingredients are used in the kitchen, the Burtons purchased farmland 30 minutes away from the city — and at a lower elevation — to grow their own food. The farm now boasts a bounty that will provide 80 percent of their vegetables and greens by the end of the year. They are also raising dairy cows that will be the primary source for their latest project, cheesemaking, under the capable hands of their mother who studied the art in Europe. When I asked if they would be raising chickens for their egg dishes, Lindsey laughed.
“We considered it for a moment, or two, but when we calculated that our average use was 85,000 eggs a year, we demurred.”
Surprisingly, San Sebas has never focused its advertising on the expat community. “We confine our presence to the local newspaper, radio stations, and social media. Our intent is to appeal to all of the people who live in Cuenca,” said Burton. “Our menu is in Spanish with only the title of each dish in English. We want foreign guests to know what they are ordering, but we encourage them to learn enough Spanish to understand their order.”
The San Sebas long-range business plan is to offer classes in sustainable farm production and cheesemaking. For those seeking to develop their own food emporium, I can suggest no better option than to sit at the feet of the masters to learn how the culinary arts encompasses more than a fancy presentation — it requires hard work, determination, and commitment to sound principles. This is key to their continued success.
San Sebas Cafe: San Sebastian 1.94 y Mariscal Sucre; Hours: 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. every day; Phone: 07 284 3496; Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Facebook