Everyone loves a "local boy done good" story, and Quinn Stephenson's is exactly that. It was unlikely, as a teenager washing dishes at the old flea market, that he would have imagined someday owning two of Santa Fe's most venerable establishments. But then again, perhaps he did.
"I've never earned a dollar outside of the restaurant industry," says the Pojoaque native. "I've had success by not waiting for things to be presented to me, rather me creating opportunity for myself."
Working his way up from the dish pit (the mailroom of restaurants), through bussing and barbacking, to a manager and celebrated mixologist at Coyote Café & Coyote Cantina, Stephenson became known for his "culinary cocktails." Drawing inspiration from the kitchen, his creative applications of advanced cooking techniques and tricks, including foams, gels and even flavored ice cubes, are among the reasons Coyote Cantina is consistently rated one of the city's top watering holes.
Pushing boundaries and creating opportunities soon opened even bigger doors for Stephenson, namely, becoming a co-owner of Coyote Café in 2007, and then its sole owner in 2017.
"It's a natural progression for anyone who really loves this industry to get the opportunity to own their own spot," says Stephenson.
And things have not slowed since then. In a city that is a brand in itself, "you can say Santa Fe anywhere in this country and immediately people will have an image in their head," he says, Stephenson has left his own brand on many of the city's eateries, from co-founding Radish & Rye to co-owning Geronimo, both of which he's since left.
And then, in April 2019, when Santacafé, one of the great power-lunching spots in town, suddenly shuttered its doors with a sign reading "Santacafé is under new ownership and temporarily closed," local teeth were achatter about what that meant. Who was this new owner and what did it mean for the old Santa Fe standard?
"Santacafé was similar [to Coyote Café] in the sense that it's not like I waited for a 'for sale' sign to come up—I initiated contact," Stephenson explains. "I felt that if I hadn't inquired, I would regret it."
Nerves were eased when it turned out Santacafé's sudden closure was Stephenson once again exercising his entrepreneurial muscle and, after four months, Santacafé reopened with a light new look and revamped menu. Where Coyote Café focuses on modern New Mexican, Santacafé continues its tradition of fresh, fusion-ish cuisine. Though the menu is a bit healthier—for instance, buttered lobster on brioche has been implemented in place of a ridiculously rich lobster pot pie—it's still thoughtfully curated bistro-style food that takes advantage of Northern New Mexico's seasonal harvest bounty.
"With the remodeled space, we truly have the architecture to create something very special," Stephenson tells SFR. "My vision is to not necessarily focus on quantity, but quality. For me it's not about the number of guests but the quality of their experience."
While some gripe that Santa Fe dining has become overpriced and too tourist-focused, Stephenson disagrees.
"There are some great restaurants which comprise the majority of the 400 restaurants that I imagine cater very much to the locals. I don't think the average person understands what it takes financially to provide a beautiful space for you to relax in and provide a professional staff to serve you," he says. "When you factor in rents, licensing, very high minimum wage, cost of food and beverage and what it takes on a daily basis, it never ceases to amaze me when frugal people complain."
Owning two restaurants, each with its own nuances and audience, is a lot to manage. One wonders if Stephenson ever gets a chance to relax?
"Unfortunately not lately, I'm still very much working my tail off day in and day out," he says. "My work is social so it's not like I don't 'get out,' but I could certainly use a day at home in the hammock!"
While maintaining the high standards of excellence for which Coyote Café and Santacafé have become known, and “building a company that has integrity and genuine values,” Stephenson may want to plan ahead for a little time off, and not just in a hammock, but for his next, and perhaps most exciting venture: “marrying my fiancé, Nicole.”