By Joanna Bender
When Pete Breckinridge and Michelle Bakeman, the husband and wife team behind the popular Popacuchu Café, closed and sold their thriving business recently, locals mourned its passing, especially Michelle’s one-of-a-kind desserts.
The couple is still in Cuenca and hard at work on their next business venture, a tour company targeted primarily at high school students and also luxury tours for locals – all featuring gourmet food, upscale accommodations, and education about Ecuador and Latin American culture.
This two-part series looks at how Pete and Michelle ended up in Cuenca to open Popacuchu Café and then walked away from it to do something that, on the surface, seems very different.
“I’ve always been pulled between two professions – cooking or teaching,” Michelle said. “My mother is from Chile, and I spent every other summer there with my grandparents, working on their farm and helping sell items in their store. I loved being there, living with them and speaking Spanish. I started studying Spanish literature at Tulane University with the intent to get my master’s and PhD and be a teacher. And then I left university to go to cooking school. My mother still hasn’t forgiven me for that one.”
Michelle spent several years after cooking school developing and honing, as she describes it, her “pastry obsession.” She lived and worked in Arkansas and Virginia, baking cakes and other pastries and, along the way, married and had a daughter Melina.
“When Melina was two-years old, we divorced,” Michelle said. “I started teaching, because with a two-year-old, I couldn’t do food service at night. For the next 11 years, I taught Spanish and Latin America studies full-time. After about five years of teaching, the cooking side came back, and I started baking cakes at night – huge wedding cakes and birthday cakes. Just call me ‘Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’.”
And then along came Pete, who helped Michelle deliver those gigantic three- and four-tier cakes. The couple first met when they were in their 20s, dated and broke up. Pete still remembers the day Michelle called him, 10 years later.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Pete said. “I knew her voice right away. She was the last person I ever thought I would hear from in the world because it had ended so badly between us.”
“After my divorce, I was thinking what could I do that would make me happy, and I called Pete,” Michelle said. “He was always the one I wanted – he just didn’t know he was supposed to marry me.”
And so the partnership began in earnest, with Pete helping Michelle at night while he was working his own 15-to-20-hour-a-day job with Aramark uniforms, driving trucks and carrying lots of weight. He had multiple surgeries on his knees because the meniscus kept tearing. At first he thought it was because he was trying to run for exercise, but when he quit running and the meniscus still kept tearing, he knew it was the job.
“We were doing nothing but working all the time,” Michelle said. “Pete was so tired he would just fall asleep at the dinner table. And on the weekends I fought for a parking place so I could go grocery shopping at Wal-Mart. Neither one of us minds routine, but we were getting tired of that routine.”
And teaching Spanish just made the daily routine harder for Michelle. “It was as if something very important was missing,” she said. “Speaking Spanish every day would make me remember the wonderful times with my grandparents in Chile, how much I enjoyed Latin America – its beauty and the people.”
In 2012 Pete and Michelle were looking for a place to vacation, and it boiled down to California, with its redwood forests and wine country, or Cuenca, which popped up on an Internet search. The couple had enjoyed the opportunity to travel through Michelle’s teaching job, taking students to Spain, Morocco, Turkey, Greece, and Peru; however, this time they wanted to go somewhere on their own, a place of their own choosing.
“I told Pete it was dangerous for me to go to Cuenca because I knew what it was like,” Michelle said. “I knew what a city in the Andes was, what the air would feel like, what the cost of living was, and I knew I had these things I could do – cook and bake.”
After some more research, the couple decided that Cuenca beat out California for vacation. For 11 days they toured the city and soaked up the culture and, for one day while they were in town, called a real estate company to look at some apartments. They saw four apartments and fell in love with one for its wonderful light and terrific view of downtown.
“Michelle had been doing a lot of research on Cuenca,” Pete said, “and the property values were appreciating every year, so we went to look at apartments solely as an investment – to either live in it 20 years from now or rent it out. We had taken such a beating on our retirements and benefits from the economic downturn of 2008 that we needed to find a good place for our money.”
Pete and Michelle returned home and suffered through the rest of the hot summer. “It was horrible,” Michelle said, “We started back into our routine, and it was such a dual reality – the reality of life in Virginia competing with the reality of life somewhere else and the opportunity to live differently. I just lost my marbles and started crying, saying ‘we can’t do this anymore – we have got to leave.”
The couple began to research again, this time focusing on the possibility of moving to another city in the United States – maybe Seattle – to open up a small café, but they couldn’t make the numbers work. The cost of insurance would sink them before they got started.
So Pete and Michelle decided to move to Cuenca and stay in the brand new apartment they had purchased as an investment. They arrived in July 2013, ready for a fresh start and confident that Michelle’s gifts of cooking and baking would be well-received.
The is the first part of a 2 part serious. Read part 2 here!