Creativity in cuisine, a family atmosphere and big burgers are the hallmarks of Calvo & Co.
By Stephen Vargha
Family is the root of a Cuenca restaurant’s name. Many misinterpret its true meaning.
“Co. means companionship, friends,” said Jose Ibañez.
Jose is the owner of Calvo & Co., a west side restaurant that is famous for its gourmet hamburgers. “Calvo is Spanish for my bald head,” said Jose. “A lot of times I get asked about the meaning of the name. A few years ago, a reporter thought I said, ‘bold.’ I’ll take it,” Jose said with a laugh.
The family has grown from its genesis in March 2019. “I opened Calvo & Co. with just two employees on Los Alamos,” Jose said. “Today, I have nine employees. It is about helping nine families by providing jobs.”
To Jose, money is not important. He realizes one needs money to survive, but an abundance of it does not make one happy. “I want my money to make more opportunities,” said Jose. “Happiness is in the heart. It makes me happy when I can have more employees.”
“I came to Ecuador from Spain with nothing,” Jose added. “I have lots now with nine families as part of my restaurant family.”
Every Christmas Eve, Jose has his family over for a holiday meal. “I invite all of my employees and their families over for a special Christmas dinner. That includes my original cook. The restaurant is only for my families on Christmas Eve,” said Jose. “I still remember a Christmas Eve in Quito when I was all alone. I decided that would never happen again, especially for my employees.”
It was literally a long road for the 42-year-old Spaniard to have his large family. Jose grew up in Valencia and went to CdT Valencia institute to study “Service.” Upon graduation, Jose ended up managing several restaurants in his hometown.
His long trek began in 2015. “I visited a friend from Valencia who lived in Quito. He introduced me to the owner of the largest catering company in Ecuador,” said Jose. “She asked me about my job in Spain, and then she made me an offer.”
His job was to teach her waiters and observe them. That lasted for two years as Jose ended up marrying a woman from Santa Cruz Island (Galápagos Islands), who was at a university in the capital city.
“We came to Cuenca for our honeymoon as we had never been to the city,” said Jose. “The two of us immediately fell in love with Cuenca as it is the cleanest, most secure, and a safe city. There’s lots of culture, architecture… a lot like Europe. And Cuencanos are the warmest people; they are kind to strangers. That does not happen in big cities.”
His first job was up in the mountains at Hostería dos Chorreras. “I was a manager for two years until I got sick in the lungs… a type of pneumonia,” said Jose. “My doctor told me to get out of the Cajas and get to where it was warmer.” The resort sits at about 11,300 feet (3,445 meters) above sea level.
He got a job east of Cuenca, at Santa Barbara Hostería, in Gualaceo. It closed down after one year on the job. One of the eight owners of the Gualaceo resort founded Golden Prague Beer and offered Jose a manager’s job at the El Vergel location.
“I was at Golden Prague for almost a year before I decided it was time to make my own business,” said Jose. “My own business allows me to care and to be creative.”
Creativity is what Jose strived for. “I was looking to make the best food and food that was unique,” said Jose. “Everything in Cuenca at that time was sandwiches and fast-food burgers. I wanted beautiful dishes, more than what was being offered.”
At the 54-seat Los Alamos location, Jose strived to make signature dishes. “I put my heart into my dishes,” said Jose. “At the beginning, it was hard for me. I started small. It was step-by-step as I added something new to the menu every three months. Now with a bigger menu, it is every six months.”
When Calvo & Co. opened, there was a bakery on one side of the restaurant and at the other end was El Jeque restaurant. Jose was the restaurant’s only waiter. “At that time, Matthews Bagels was an apartment,” said Jose. “I built the outside terrace which helped bring in more customers and businesses. Now there are seven restaurants on that street.”
The early success was met head-on by the Covid pandemic. Many restaurants in Cuenca did not survive the coronavirus epidemic. “I was closed for a month. I told my employees I didn’t know when we would reopen,” said Jose.
Because his employees were family, Jose did something unusual for business owners. “I opened my kitchen and shared the food with my employees,” said Jose. “What money I had was shared with them.”
After talking to his friend in Valencia about the coronavirus, Jose reopened Calvo & Co. Using what Spain had learned early on about Covid, Jose returned to his creativity.
“Per a request from an American expat, I started to make my version of a Shrimp Po’ Boy sandwich. He got the very first two of them delivered to his home,” said Jose. “He posted the sandwiches on his Facebook page and the very next day I had 40 orders for the Shrimp Po’ Boy!”
It has remained very popular since. Then there are his hamburgers.
“Hamburgers are my specialty,” said Jose. “We won ‘Best Hamburgers’ in Cuenca in 2019 and 2021 at Gringo Post. Now we wait for the 2022 results.”
Jose contracted with the Guayaquil meat company, Embuandes, to make his own bacon. “They make a bacon for the stores such as Coral, but I wanted a high-quality bacon,” said Jose. “Embuandes makes my special bacon out of only pancetta.”
When Jose is asked how he comes up with his unique hamburger creations, he can only laugh and say that he does not know. “I have a dream to create something special and it becomes a part of my menu,” said Jose.
Just as everything was gelling, Jose could not renew his lease on Los Alamos. Ten months ago, he opened up just two blocks west of his old location, on Los Cipreses.
“Because of friends, I found my current location. The house was available for rent, so I took it as I have a lot more room for gatherings and parties. There are seats for 110 people,” said Jose. “We have two private rooms upstairs, a large eating area inside, a bar, and a covered garden area to eat outside. In my new place, I can show off my kitchen.”
What makes the location even more special is that Jose lives just four blocks away. “I live in an area with high density residential,” said Jose. “It means there are a lot of people near Calvo & Co.”
The new location seems to be working as a recent online review said one enters Calvo & Co. only once as a customer. They added that after that first visit, you are family.
As the new year approaches, Calvo & Co. is optimistic for a successful and delicious 2023. That includes using the restaurant’s relatively new and recognizable logo.
“I was eating a chicken sandwich at the KFC at Mall del Rio when I said to myself, ‘If they can sell chicken with an old man’s face, I can certainly do it with my bald head and face’,” exclaimed Jose.
Calvo & Co., Los Cipreses 1-133 y Ordóñez Lasso, Cuenca, 095-879-3723, email@example.com, Hours: Tuesday to Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to 10:00 p.m.; Sundays 11:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.
Photos by Stephen Vargha