By Sylvester Grahame
Even the most casual observer is aware that Cuenca is a restaurant town. Every neighborhood has plenty of places to choose from, some with well-deserved reputations honed over years while others are just getting off the ground and working to earn their place in a competitive environment.
It seems that for every new dining establishment in town, another one is shutting its doors for good. Indeed, it is a sad fact that the average lifespan of a restaurant in Cuenca is under three years and that nearly 95 percent of the eateries that open this year will not ring in 2023 under the same management.
And then there is Sunrise Cafe. Open since 2016, this American-style cafe is the defacto place for expats and visitors missing Yankee home cooking as well as a faithful clientele of Cuencanos, many of whom have lived in the U.S. and Canada.
Actually, the space that Sunrise occupies has been a gringo hangout since 2009 when Australians Chris and Jenny Bluefields opened Kookaburras. For several months before Sunrise, it was Bananas.
The owner/manager of Sunrise, Orlando Ortiz, is one of the Cuencano returnees. He explains it this way. “I was working in Minneapolis, Minnesota for a man with several restaurants. During my six-year employment, I was able to advance from a cafe setting to fine-dining. There was one obstacle: getting a green card to work legally in the U.S. I finished the application but when I learned that it would take months before a card would be issued, I returned home to wait for word while visiting my family. Shortly after that, my wife and I decided Cuenca would be a healthier environment to raise our family and my thoughts of permanent residency up north faded.”
Ortiz began a search for opportunities in Cuenca but never lost his passion for cooking. After careful consideration and consultation with his family, he decided to make the plunge and open his own place. The style of restaurant was never in doubt — an American-style diner.
“I loved my time in Minneapolis for many reasons, but foremost was the many friends I made. I wanted to bring to Cuenca a slice of the easygoing camaraderie and team spirit I experienced up north and share it with the expats living here. I recall the times I missed home and felt I could provide a place that offered nourishment to a community that I came to respect and whose company I enjoy.” That said, Ortiz turned away to greet his patrons and pour what would seem an endless river of coffee.
Landmark restaurants are a feature of many first-class cities, and Cuenca has its share. Fabiano’s, around for nine years, has long been a standard bearer and favorite vendor of Italian cuisine. Tiesto’s, which is five years older, is ranked among the top 15 South American restaurants for its inspired adaptation of regional specialties and Sunrise Cafe is home to folks who enjoy down-home cooking just like mamma used to make. These three establishments, as well as several others, have created a niche for themselves and share a commonality — hard work, great customer service and keen attention to detail.
Sunrise has developed a loyal clientele that Ortiz estimates to be 80 percent of his business. Although he did not have any numbers available, he said there was barely a vacant seat on Mother’s Day, all day long. When I asked him to explain his success he replied: “My success is due to the effort of the entire staff. Every employee plays a role and no employee is more valuable than any other. We are a team determined to be the best.”
Restaurants will continue to come and go in Cuenca. Some fail to follow basic business practices, some don’t advertise and others are simply unlucky. However, those that are successful share a commitment to excellence, a belief in the importance of personal service and the energy to persevere in the face of difficulty. Sunrise Cafe stands tall in the pantheon of food service establishments that help define Cuenca.