By Joanna Bender
When Pete Breckinridge and Michelle Bakeman, the husband/wife team behind the popular Popacuchu Café, closed and sold their thriving business recently, locals mourned the passing of the café.
This 2-part series looks at how Pete and Michelle ended up in Cuenca to open Popacuchu Café and then walked away from that successful business to do something that, on the surface, seems very different.
To read part 1, click here.
“Popacuchu allowed me to revel in the gift of feeding people,” Michelle said. “It’s a wonderful feeling to look through the window and see somebody enjoy what I made – it’s the most satisfying thing in the world. I love doing that and it’s why I’ve always gone back to it. It makes me feel full and peaceful.”
For Pete, the best thing about owning and operating the café was the simple fact that they were the decision-makers and the quality was his responsibility.
“I’ve worked for some bad general managers,” Pete said, “and the café was our chance to run things the way we saw fit. I also took a lot of pride in that it was Michelle’s talent that made us well-known in Cuenca – people told me time and time again how wonderful her pastries were. You couldn’t find anything like them in town.”
And yet, even as the café garnered acclaim and became successful, Pete and Michelle found they couldn’t escape the same demons they had wrestled with back in Virginia – long hours and lack of quality customer service personnel.
“The labor laws are complex here in Ecuador,” Pete said, “and we found ourselves understaffed at the café. I worked for years in customer service for a large hotel, and we were constantly understaffed – it was impossible to provide good service. So now here I am the owner of this café, and I’m falling into the same trap I’ve been complaining about for the past 15 years.”
Even though many of the café’s customers understood the difficulties surrounding service and labor laws, it was still a sore spot for Pete and Michelle. People had to wait longer than necessary, and the toll it took on the two of them was painfully familiar: working 15-20-hour days with no time for each other led to pent-up frustrations.
“I became a different person,” Pete said. “My single focus was getting people food and drink as quickly as possible. I didn’t have time to chitchat – I couldn’t come back and answer questions because I didn’t have time for niceties – it was just how fast I could get coffee to somebody. It was a nightmare.”
For Michelle, trying to finding a balance between being in the kitchen and watching what was happening out front was an impossible situation.
“I was doing dishes and still having to make pastries and soups,” Michelle said. “Pete was working the front as fast as he could with Melina, doing her best to run between us. And we were not communicating well. We started to feel like we were failing, and we were failing each other. We were doing exactly what we did in the States. And it was almost unfortunate that the café was successful because it was killing us.”
On Sundays, the café was closed, and yet the couple was so exhausted they had no energy for exercise or other activities. Everything else seemed to fade into the background, including making necessary trips to the doctor or simply going out for coffee.
“I woke up one Monday morning and wasn’t ready to go back,” Michelle said. “Pete and I didn’t open the café that day and we agreed that we couldn’t do it anymore, that it wasn’t working for us. But how do you close a business that’s successful? Businesses close all of the time because they don’t have customers but we did.”
The couple didn’t consider closing the café right away; they kept thinking of other options that might allow them to change their circumstances and stay in business. Take-out, fewer tables, a gourmet food store, and delivery service were all up for discussion, and yet none of the options decreased the workload and, in some cases, increased it.
“I had a feeling when we closed for vacation in July, we weren’t going to reopen,” Pete said. “We had no idea what that meant for us, what we were going to do. And even when we made the decision to close and try to sell the café, we still thought about reopening if it didn’t sell.”
While they were waiting for a prospective buyer, Michelle started teaching Spanish again. “My workaholism kicked in,” she laughed. “I had one student at first, then the one student became four, and the four became 12. And I started thinking, ‘maybe we don’t have to do the café, maybe there’s something else out there for us.”
And the idea came one day when Michelle was accompanying her daughter as she got a tattoo.
“We stopped to get some coffee, and I saw this brochure for a large company that has hostels everywhere,” Michelle said. “3 days, 2 nights, and they take you to do all kinds of stuff. And I thought, ‘we could do that.’ Pete and I had traveled so much with my students when I was teaching, and the companies working with students are pretty lousy – nothing but cookie-cutter tours and bad food.”
And so the idea for Popacuchu Tours was born – provide tours for high school students, ages 15 to18, with a focus on high-quality food, education and activities. Michelle has maintained her teaching connections from the States, and the new company will start advertising its services with those schools first.
“When we got a buyer for the café, (a Venezuelan couple who plan to serve soups, salads and pastries), we traveled Ecuador for a few weeks, going to the places the tour companies go,” Pete said. “We stayed in different hotels, tried restaurants and made connections with local people. They were so excited for the opportunity to share their culture and kept offering to teach cooking classes or set up special dance performances – it was incredible.”
Popacuchu Tours features several base tours to choose from, and then the tours can be customized. Michelle and Pete will work with teachers, parents and students to design exactly the type of tour they want, everything from Spanish history and culture to Ecuador’s biodiversity and, of course, gastronomy.
“The more we can convince kids that age to travel, to smell other foods, to see how other people work and interact, the better,” Michelle said. “It’s easy to hate things and people you’re unfamiliar with, but the more we keep shrinking the globe, the harder it is to hate. We want to encourage young people to be open-minded and excited about Ecuador and Latin America and the rest of the world.”
And Pete and Michelle hope to share that same excitement about Ecuador with people already living here, too. Their plans for Popacuchu Tours include offering luxury tours inside the country, with first-class hotels, gourmet dinners, and spa retreats.
“We have put together a 10-day luxury tour inside Ecuador that is scheduled for February 5-14, 2017,” Michelle said. “It’s very high-end, and everything is already arranged. If people have special diets or needs or maybe their Spanish is a little shaky, we will be there 24-hours-a-day to take care of it. We really want people to be able to relax and see the best of Ecuador.”
And it is Ecuador that Pete and Michelle want to show off to everyone, students and local residents alike.
“Ecuador is one of the most biodiverse places on the planet,” Michelle said. “It’s only 450 miles north to south, and you can actually travel from the jungle to the coast in one day. There are so many people who have lived here for 3 or 4 years and are completely unaware of the beauty and cultural richness right over that hill. It never occurs to them to go on vacation here and explore this wonderful country.”
For anyone interested in the luxury tour in February, contact Pete or Michelle via email for more details and an itinerary; they would like 12 participants for their initial tour. And if you know some high school teachers, parents or students who might be interested in setting up an Ecuador tour, please direct them to the Popacuchu Tours website for more information.
“I was worried that we were failing life,” Michelle said. “We were good at regimens but not really living. And then a friend of mine said ‘you’re following a dream, honing and sharing your skills and interests – what makes you think you’re not successful? And I realized she was right… Our tour company combines what we love — food, travel, culture, Spanish, and Ecuador – and we’re excited to share it.”