Pandemic Profiles: Family comes first for these sushi chef expats and an Ecuadorian building a new life
Editor’s note: Pandemic Profiles is an ongoing series that looks at how the Covid-19 pandemic is affecting the lives of Cuencanos and Cuenca expats.
By Robert Bradley
It is easy to understand why Raymond and Marissa Huntley, proprietors of Osaka Ramen on Coronel Talbot, across from San Sebastian Plaza, moved to Cuenca: it’s all about the family. When asked what their goal is for the year Raymond replied, “To bring some of my family to Cuenca, to help them escape the violence and government suppression in the Philippines.” When asked what his five-year plan is, he said, “To bring the rest of my family here.”
Established in 2017, Osaka Ramen has become the de-facto refuge and training ground for the extended family. Raymond and Millisa’s son, Raymarc, has recently been promoted to sous-chef, or lead cook, while his parents plan opportunities for the rest of the clan. It is working well. In early January, the Huntleys will partner with a second restaurant just a few steps away from “the mothership”. It will feature pan-Asian offerings prepared by their daughter, Rica, their son, Ryeu, and grandson, Allan.
Preparing a sound business plan is essential for any business to succeed, especially in Cuenca’s highly competitive restaurant business. Raymond’s thoughtful understanding of this imperative led him to a nine-year apprenticeship in Osaka, Japan, studying the fine art of sushi preparation under the watchful and demanding tutelage of masters of the craft. His dedication and determination are now rewarded. He and Marrisa are now masters of the craft themselves and the results are impressive.
“The pandemic has been hard on us,” says Raymond. “There are times when sleep seems to be a luxury and times of high anxiety. Like everyone else, it came as a huge shock to our business and we have lost much of our customer base, mostly foreign residents. In-house dining was no longer an option and developing a business plan based on delivery service has been challenging.”
He adds: “There have been a few months when we considered just paying the rent a success.”
Today, Osaka Ramen and the Huntleys are regaining their footing, once again concentrating on relocating the family from the dangers of the Philippines to the relative tranquility of Cuenca. Most of the hardship is behind them and they are on track to bring two more family members here in January and four more the following month.
They are a living reminder that perseverance is its own reward.
A new start that puts family first
Alejandro Ponce is a relative newcomer. Born and raised in Guayaquil, he moved to Cuenca when he was in his mid-twenties to marry and raise a family.
As is too often the case, the marriage didn’t last and neither did his Cuenca odyssey.
Ponce returned to Guayaquil where he worked for many years in the shrimp industry. His job was to treat the pens in which shrimp are raised, changing the water and filtering the gravel beds to remove bacteria and waste. It was a good job, paid well and offered the advantage of working outdoors.
Then, one day last March the job came to an end. A bug far more sinister than bacterial waste brought an entire industry to a full stop.
Ponce decided to return to Cuenca to be near his two now-grown daughters and son. Needing something to do, he decided to open a small cell phone repair and accessory shop. “People were locked up at home and afraid and I thought starting a business that focuses on communication was good idea,” he said. “I also knew it would be sustainable in the future.”
The business is slowly taking shape. On a recent day an electrician was installing track lighting under new shelving while boxes of accessories and phone parts, stacked in a corner, waited for their moment under the lights. Ponce knows it will be a while before the business will be profitable so the shop, at on Estevez de Toral and Sucre, doubles as his office for other projects as well.
He still works part-time with his girlfriend’s family in the shrimp market, traveling to Machala three days a week but he doubts the the highly competitive shrimp business will recover from the pandemic any time soon.
“The virus is disrupting many lives, including my own,” he says. “My girlfriend has been stuck in the U.S. for months with no end in sight but I’m able to be close to my children and that is a good thing.”.
In time, he hopes his new Cuenca venture will provide opportunities for his family and that life will again and be measured by rising tides rather than lockdowns and masks.