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Maribel Araujo On Surviving Storms, Flames, And COVID

All Zagat Stories are written by our editorial team. This story is presented by our partner Chase Sapphire®.

Through the difficulties of the past year, restaurants have been there for their communities. They’ve pivoted to takeout, provided meals to essential workers, and so much more. The Sapphire Supports Restaurants Contest is awarding $50,000 business grants from Chase Sapphire to 20 small-business restaurants across America to provide COVID-19 pandemic recovery assistance. Zagat Stories is featuring interviews with all of our Sapphire Supports Restaurants Contests grant recipients.

Maribel Araujo is co-owner of New York’s Caracas Arepa Bar, whose beloved original East Village location closed in 2020. The Brooklyn spinoff in Williamsburg is still going strong, as is the summertime beach outpost in Rockaway.

Pre-lockdown, we still had the East Village location that we opened back in 2003. At that point, we had lost the next-door restaurant, where we had a dining room, to a fire. We had our Williamsburg location, and we had Rockaway, our summer outpost.

In the restaurant’s classic cycle of life, there is a moment where restaurants—the ones that survive the beginning—become popular and successful. Then, there is no other way in New York City but to plateau. So you have to stay relevant, doing different things and trying to constantly reinvent yourself.

I feel like we were at that point before the pandemic because we didn’t like to do a lot of to-go food. We thought our restaurant was a neighborhood restaurant for people to have a face-to-face experience. It was really important for us that people understood that this was food meant to be eaten at the moment. So we were already facing a little bit of a challenge with the invasion of the third-party online delivery systems, and we were trying to find our rhythm there.

When lockdown arrived, we decided to fully shut down. We didn’t want to put our community, our staff members and their families, and ourselves in any potential danger. My business partner and ex-husband at that point had a baby, a one-year-old toddler. We were like, okay, let’s just shut down completely and we’ll figure it out. Obviously, like everyone, we didn’t know how long it was going to last.

Maribel Araujo and her partner Aristides Barrios. Photo: Emily Schindler.

I’m the matriarch of the whole entire restaurant. I usually have all the answers, and this time around I didn’t have most of them. So it was challenging, but we remained really close to everyone and helped those that didn’t have any access to unemployment. As soon as we got PPP and felt a little safer, we decided to reopen and gave priority to those that didn’t have unemployment to come back.

We reopened Manhattan first. It was seven weeks or so into the game. We started doing just takeout because that’s what we were allowed to do. We turned our windows into takeout windows, and we started rethinking how we were going to translate the Caracas experience into a bag, and how we were going to try to keep the brand intact by delivering food. We started making stickers and coming up with cool packaging, and an arepa kit to make at home. We tried to connect with people through our social media and rethink the way we operated. We turned our restaurant into a warehouse.

We did things like making the menu smaller, with fewer options. We downsized our staff so that we didn’t have that many people in the kitchen working at the same time. Slowly, our online delivery increased, but it increased a lot. We didn’t add any new platforms or anything like that. We were using DoorDash and our own system, so we just stayed that way. We didn’t want to go crazy. Hoping that we were going to get back to normal, we didn’t want to implement all these other services and then cut them back. Too many tablets to look at.

As we started to reopen and allow people inside the restaurant, we quickly understood that we could operate with fewer people, at least in the front of house. It allowed us to also rethink our structure and make it as lean as possible in order to survive.

Photo: Emily Schindler.

There’s an overall understanding that we need to make customers work more than usual. Calling the restaurant is going to take my lean staff off the floor to answer the phone, for example. I changed my phone system so that it’s almost impossible to get through. I give a whole speech on the greeting, like, “You have called Caracas Arepa Bar. We don’t do reservations. Yes, we do catering, there is an inquiry form on the website. Yes, Rockaway is open. Yes, vaccination is required. If you still want to talk to somebody, press here.” I just remembered that I have to change it again.

With Hurricane Sandy, you realized quickly how much destruction there was because it was visual. The rebuilding was also visual. You knew that things were getting better, that there was progress, that we were going to be able to reopen. It was painful, but it was something that you could quantify by looking at it.

The pandemic is super hard because you don’t really know what’s going on. Are we getting better, or are we getting worse? Personally, I was ready to pull the plug at many points. My business partner and I were like yin and yang. Whenever I was really down and ready to close, he would be like, “I don’t think it’s fair to do that right now. We need to push a little harder.” And when he was like, “This is it, I hate it,” I would be like, “No, our staff needs us. We really need to push through this. We’re going to be okay.”

I’m a total community-oriented person. I love my staff. They are family to us. Some of them have been with us for 18 years—since week number five of Caracas. My main goal was to give these people a job, even if we were losing a little bit of money. I just wanted to give them a job so that they could find something to grab onto and stabilize their life. By going through this, I realized how lost a lot of people are, and how difficult it is to get help, or understand what the vaccine is and what the side effects are. I literally had to grab people by the hand and be like, “We’re going now to get you vaccinated. None of us have grown a third eye. You just have to get it done.”

Photo: Emily Schindler.

We’re in different communities. We are in Rockaway, we are in Williamsburg, and we were in the East Village. In both Williamsburg and in the city, when we reopened, I had people that immediately came in to place orders. People that I had known as customers who had become friends, they immediately showed up, even from far away. I couldn’t believe it. I saw an order come through in the Manhattan location from one friend of mine. It was a big order. He showed up in his car with his kid and his dog and his wife. I’m like, “Oh my God, you came all the way from Park Slope!” And he was like, “Hell, yeah! What do you mean? Of course we did.”

When we closed the East Village location, it was insane. I get goose bumps just by talking or thinking about it. People wanted to get a piece of the wall. People wrote us letters explaining to us how they met there on a first date with their current husband or wife, and now they have kids, and the kids go there. When you think about it, 18 years is like a whole generation. A lot of expats from Venezuela came by. They were like, “Whenever I would feel homesick or sad, I would always come here.” That was really powerful, and it was really meaningful. It really helped me close that restaurant feeling good, feeling that I accomplished my mission.

I actually live in Rockaway, and I’m very tied to the community because of Hurricane Sandy and everything we have done on the boardwalk, and the number of kids that we employ in the summertime. So when we reopened in the summer of 2020, that was a real change. We closed up all the gates, and people weren’t able to come in. People were in their bathing suits, and we were like, “You’ve got to wear a mask in order to come to the counter.” That was a pretty challenging summer. But at the same time, people were so happy and grateful. They all would say the same thing: “This feels like a little bit of normalcy to have you guys here.”

I am very resilient, but this particular time around I felt really defeated. Many days I was like, “I can’t do it. I just can’t do it.” Then I started thinking about my crew and my family—my real family, my son—and I’d be like, “No, this is our livelihood. We’ve got to make it through.” Now we’re just trying to understand what the new rhythm is going to be for the winter, and trying to adapt to that too.