San Sebas Café blends international coffee shop and American comfort food
By Christopher Lux
When Lindsay Burton began planning San Sebas Café, she envisioned a place where university students would drink good coffee, talk, read and work. The café was inspired by the eclectic coffee-shop scene she fell in love with while living in Austin, Texas.
Located on Mariscal Sucre and Coronel Talbot at the southwest corner of Plaza de San Sebastian, the café is comfortable, featuring coffee, delicious desserts, as well as lunch options. It’s also unique because of one small but important touch: free coffee refills, something gringos appreciate but rarely find in Cuenca.
The coffee-shop feel is not all the place has to offer, though. “I originally wanted this to be a small coffee shop,” Lindsay says. “Then, more people came and more foods were added to the menu. We had to add a second floor later. Now it’s way bigger than I ever imagined.”
The upstairs offers comfortable chairs, a couch, and open space to spend time with friends over a cup of coffee.
Although Lindsay lived in Texas, where she was involved in opening restaurants, she grew up all over the world. She was born in Hawaii and later lived in New Zealand, Belize, the Philippines, Japan, Texas, and Oregon. She also spent some time in Cambodia.
Her parents were real estate agents in Oregon. They later became involved in Youth with a Mission, an international volunteer movement currently operating in more than 1,100 locations in 180 countries. They began coming to Ecuador in 2005 to work with young people outside Quito, bringing in medical and vision teams which provide eye exams and dispense glasses.
In May 2009, the Burtons came to Cuenca and began working in the surrounding areas. “My parents called me and told me I had to visit Cuenca,” Lindsay says. They knew she would love it. In 2010, she visited her parents in Cuenca and fell in love with the small-town feel of the city. She went back to Texas, sold everything and moved to Cuenca with the dream of opening a coffee shop.
Establishing San Sebas took about nine months. “I had my eye on this location for a while. It was many things before, like an almuerzo place,” Lindsay says. “When it became available, I got it.”
Once she rented the space, Lindsay still faced many obstacles. Opening a business in a new country proved to be taxing. She had to deal with permits, contractors, renovations and visas — all with her limited Spanish skills.
“I worked full-time doing the renovation and setting up the place, and at night I worked in restaurants until two in the morning.” Then, she would wake up early the following morning to do it all again. In the mean time, she worked hard to improve her Spanish. “It was really hard,” she says.
To add to the challenge, at that time, Plaza de San Sebastian was not the clean and popular hangout it is today. “I was told it was a bad idea to get the place. I was always repainting the outside of the building because of graffiti.”
Then she had an idea. “I started giving free coffee to police,” she said. The police started hanging around the area, more restaurants moved in, and the park was soon cleaned up.
Café San Sebas is popular for gringos to have events and gatherings. “We have groups that meet here and we do events, but about 75 percent of the customers are locals.”
The customers are drawn to the feel of the place, the coffee, and–of course–the food. Her recipes that seem to appeal to both locals and gringos come from Lindsay’s upbringing. “My mother traveled a lot and picked up different cuisines,” she says. Recipes from her grandmother were also incorporated. “Cooking has always been a part of my life. My first job was at a pizza place when I was 14.”
The staff of San Sebas is a close-knit group, and they provide excellent service. “The majority of the staff has been here since the beginning,” Lindsay says. Now, they’re like a family. “We take care of each other.”
“I worked with them in the kitchen showing them the recipes I learned growing up. One of the cooks use to farm pigs. She was a dishwasher. Now she cooks,” Lindsay says.
Another part of Lindsay’s family has taken a role in her dream. Her brother Adam has recently moved to Ecuador to join the business. While Lindsay cooks and handles the front counter, Adam works behind the scenes, keeping the books, handling social media, and advertising — he does what Lindsay calls the “computer aspect.”
San Sebas has both a breakfast and lunch menu, and the full menu is served all day. The American comfort food includes large hamburgers, sandwiches, wraps, salads and homemade soups.
For breakfast, San Sebas offers bagels, pancakes, french toast, eggs, yogurt, bacon and sausage. Desserts are homemade cheesecakes, cookies, and brownies.
San Sebas offers a welcoming environment along with outside seating, whether you’re looking for a filling meal or a place to sit and drink coffee.
San Sebas Café is open Wednesday through Sunday from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.
For a location map, click here.