Restaurant owners, bank lenders and others have often repeated that nine out 10 restaurants close within the first year, and while research has proved that false — it’s more like one in four — that fact still makes Mayan Cafe‘s 10-year run remarkable.
The Mayan cuisine restaurant opened at 813 E. Market St. in January 2006, when the Wayside Christian Mission still had its shelter across the street, and well before the developer Gill Holland christened the neighborhood NuLu.
Around that same time, Joe Ley Antiques down the street had an employee whose job was to escort customers into the store, so they wouldn’t be approached by panhandlers, who were a much more common sight in the area at the time.
“I never felt unsafe,” said Bruce Ucán, chef and creator of Mayan Cafe, noting that he used to live a couple of blocks away on Washington Street. “It wasn’t dangerous. For me, it felt like home.”
Today, NuLu is an up-and-coming destination for shoppers and foodies, with businesses lining the street.
“It’s been a run. I never imagined I’d still be here,” said general manager and co-owner Anne Shadle. She also is Ucán sister-in-law.
Shadle came to Louisville at age 23 to get her master’s degree in social work and planned to work part time at Mayan Cafe, but she ended up taking over the manager position after a few weeks. About two years later, she bought into the restaurant and has remained there since.
“I had to learn every single element of running a business because my bachelor’s in psychology wasn’t all that helpful,” she said. “Also, having never worked in a restaurant. I didn’t know how to open a bottle of wine with a wine key.”
The 50-seat Mayan Cafe opened on Market Street because rent was cheap, she said.
“Somebody asked Bruce, ‘How did you know this was going to be this great restaurant street?’ He’s like: ‘I had no idea. I was super broke and opening a restaurant across the street from a homeless shelter was all I could afford.’ ” Shadle recalled. “You get in before a neighborhood’s hot because you can afford it, and then you hope that things work, that you can be a destination until the neighborhood grows up around you.”
Prior to the Mayan Cafe, Ucán owned Mayan Gyspy, which also served Mayan cuisine on Market Street, and even before that, Ucán was cooking American food in various places in the Louisville area.
“He would serve like nachos and popcorn,” she said. “He had spent 10 years trying to figure out his niche and was the city interested in actual Mayan food, did he have to just make American-style food.”
After moving to Louisville in the late 1980s, Ucán said he worked at Masterson’s Catering, Captain’s Quarters and the Hyatt Regency. Later, he got a job making continental food in the kitchen at Timothy’s Cafe & Restaurant on Broadway, which closed in 1998.
“I was doing whatever people wanted,” Ucán said, adding that he’d hoped to open his own restaurant but was unsure of the market. All the Mexican restaurants in Louisville at the time served up Americanized Mexican food, dishes that Mexico native Ucán says he didn’t recognize.
Ucán didn’t start making authentic Mexican food professionally until 1996 when he was traveling from construction site to construction site in a food truck that he served meatloaf and hot dogs out of.
A customer asked Ucán if he sold tacos. Ucán told him to hold on and drove to the grocery store to pick up tortillas, fixings for pico de gallo and other ingredients. He returned, crumbled up the meatloaf and started serving tacos.
“It took off,” he said. “The more I was cooking my food, something happened, and I was awakened.”
The key to longevity
Shadle said she believes the Mayan Cafe has succeeded for so long because Ucán had created a sustaining brand starting with the Mayan Gyspy. The restaurant also offers a unique cuisine that even today isn’t common in Louisville, and they’ve found ways to attract new customers, be it making a commitment to farm-to-table food or creating a special menu for people with food allergies.
“The minute you sit back and say, ‘Oh, we’re fine’ is the minute you get left behind,” she said. “We are always asking ourselves ‘What’s next? What do we want to do? How do you stay relevant?’ ”
Mayan Cafe’s menu features ingredients such as dragonfruit, yuca and jicama that are still uncommon sights on many menus in Louisville.
“My instinct tells me [that we’ve been successful because] I was changing things a little bit, refreshing things, refreshing menus,” Ucán said. “We keep people engaged.”
The recession hit a couple of years after Mayan Cafe opened, forcing many of the other nearby businesses to close. However, Shadle said Mayan Cafe’s sales have increased every year since 2006.
Still, that doesn’t mean it’s been easy.
During the recession, “I remember I would just test it, stand in the middle of the road at 7 o’clock on a Friday and be like ‘C’mon, hit me cars. Where are you?’ ” Shadle said. “If you saw anybody walk past the windows, you knew they were coming here because otherwise, there was no foot traffic whatsoever on the street. The last five years that has been dramatically different.”
Sales at Mayan Cafe have almost tripled in the 10 years, she said, attributing that to the restaurant’s strong reputation as well as to the economic development of NuLu.
“The more people opening down here, the more customers come to this neighborhood,” she said.
Now the restaurant is facing a new challenge that it hasn’t experienced before — it’s struggling to find quality staff, Shadle said.
Because of declining unemployment and the increasing number of restaurants in Louisville, restaurateurs say there aren’t enough staff to go around. In 2016, Mayan Cafe had most its 20-person staff turnover, Shadle said.
“That is something we just have never had. We had a super solid kitchen staff,” she said, adding that in the prior two years, Mayan Cafe had hired only one new cook.
“That was particularly challenging because we didn’t know where to advertise. We didn’t know how to interview. We didn’t know how to identify them, how to train them. We made a lot of mistakes,” she said. But “I feel like now we’ve got this.”
Mayan Cafe remains among the top restaurant in Louisville with 4.5 out of 5 stars, according to Yelp — and that’s after receiving 442 reviews.
“I am just grateful that people embraced us when we opened,” Ucán said, referring to Mayan Gyspy and Mayan Cafe. “Our job is just to have a little place where people can be happy.”
While Mayan Cafe has undoubtedly been successful, Ucán said he recognizes that he’ll never grow rich running a restaurant, but that’s not what he’s looking for.
“The restaurant business is never about making money,” he said. “If I can be happy doing what I do and make people happy and be responsible and be resourceful and have a good life, I am happy.”
To mark its 10-year anniversary, the Mayan Cafe in January is reviving 10 of its favorite entrees from the past, including its Mayapan Chilaquile, Mayan Burger and oven-roasted rabbit.
“We wanted to pay tribute to the evolution of how we’ve done food here,” Shadle said.
On Mondays in January, Mayan Cafe also is giving away free sides of tok-sel lima beans, which is a probably Mayan Cafe’s most well-known dish. If guests try all 10 entrees during January, Shadle said, they will receive a special card, modeled after the American Express black card, that entitles them to free lima beans for a year.
“People are into it,” she said.