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La Palapa’s Barbara Sibley On Staying Open In Crisis After Crisis

Barbara Sibley is chef/owner of La Palapa in New York.

I grew up in Mexico City. When I got to New York and everything was bilingual in the subway, I was like, “OK, this is a place I can live.” That was 1980.

I grew up in a Mexico that was very Mexican, as opposed to now where even my niece and nephew have such a global upbringing. Back then, Mexico was more close to Cuba in a way. But when I came to the States, I loved New York and ended up working in restaurants and realizing how much I loved it. And then it came time to open a restaurant, I had a partner, and we had a few different ideas. We decided to do my Mexican idea, which was based on the food of my childhood, the food that I’m homesick for. So right away opening La Palapa was like putting my two halves back together.

We started in 2000, and I’ve been through all kinds of things. Being here now, I laugh. I guess no experience is lost. I was making food for the hospital workers during quarantine on the same tables that I made food for the fire department and the first responders going down to the World Trade Center on 9/11.

Then there were hurricanes, and the buildings that collapsed on 7th Street. And a couple of blackouts. I’ve got a Ph.D. in Restaurant Crisis Management. I have to say that I consider myself so lucky. It’s hard times, but I work with incredible people, and we enjoy what we do, and we take care of each other. The lesson from the past is you open, and you’re here for your community. Even during 9/11, we were here and people were knocking on the windows looking for water and a phone. What do you do? You open.

In New York, our communities revolve so much around restaurants. When times are uncertain, people walk by and they’re so glad that you’re still there. It’s more than just like, “I want to eat your food” or “I have that wedding anniversary” or whatever party. It’s more to do with touchstone landmarks in our lives. During Hurricane Sandy, I iced the walk-in and we served the neighborhood for five days. We finally gave it up just as the lights went on.

When the pandemic hit, it was like a freight train. It’s full of freight, and you slam on the brakes, and then you coast and your railroad tracks carry you onto a tightrope. I froze a lot of food, saved a lot of food, and then started feeding hospital workers pretty much right away. Luckily, I had the food to do it. At first the butchers weren’t delivering. You had to call and ask, “Are you working? Are you okay?”

I didn’t shut down, not even for a day, not even for a minute. The next day after lockdown I was here with Judy, my general manager who’s worked for me for over 15 years, and my chef. I’ve worked with his family since I was 19. Having been through all of those different experiences, there were things that I knew right away. First of all, you have to hold onto your cash. You have to take care of your people. The most important thing is to make payroll and make sure nobody’s starving, and then put what you have to good use.

So we started to feed hospitals. We made a donation to the Catholic Worker. We had all this bread. I was very conscious about which purveyors I was going to shop from. There were people that had been with me through other crises and helped me up. I was very mindful about taking care of them. If I was going to spend any money, I was going to spend it very thoughtfully.

World Central Kitchen had some extra meals, so I connected them with the Catholic Worker. That allowed them to keep their soup kitchen open the entire time. Then Bloomberg Philanthropies decided it was important that we feed the public hospitals, because private hospitals had donors and board members that wanted to do wonderful things for those. Bloomberg teamed up with World Central Kitchen. I ended up doing 2,000 or 3,000 meals a week for the city hospitals. It allowed me to keep everybody busy, and to have really fresh food at La Palapa because we were making all these meals.

We would get here at five or six in the morning and cook everything for the hospitals, because it’s just better to make it fresh and send it. We were usually doing rice, beans, guacamole—things that are very easy to eat, delicious and fresh. Then for regular customers we would segue into doing takeout and delivery at first, and eventually tequila and margaritas. We had great support from the neighborhood. We never stopped doing all these things at once.

I have two taco bars. One place is at Urbanspace Vanderbilt, where they closed the market. At Gotham West Market, I stayed open. It was all about scale. My main concern was to make just enough to pay whoever was working. We were totally basing it on, what are we making? How many people can we feed?

At La Palapa, I was prepared to simplify the menu. But everyone needs the comfort. That’s when you realize you are who you are in your community. People want you. They want La Palapa. They don’t want La Palapa Lite. So I ended up not changing the menu.

I was here with Paulina, my sous chef, and we got an order for a pastel tres leches. We had the cake made, but we hadn’t frosted it. That’s a boiled frosting meringue. It’s not an instant thing at all. Domingo, my chef, came the next day and he’s like, “Are you kidding? We’re never going to sell that cake.” We sold that cake so fast. It’s because everyone wanted comfort. That’s the one thing that’s been a given in good ways and bad ways. People just want to feel some normalcy.

There were some employees that didn’t want to be here. They were nervous. They were scared. I think you could divide the world between the people that stayed home and the people that didn’t. If you’d been out in the world, or if you’re okay with living your life with a certain amount of risk, or if you have no choice and you have to work—all of those people are warriors.

But even to this day, I call people up and they’re like, “No, I haven’t been out. I’m not going back out.” They’re afraid. I would never force anybody. I don’t believe in that. I don’t think it’s very compassionate. But it is remarkable. I think all of us that have been out and working, we’ve picked up a skill set. You know how to put on your mask, you know how to be in the world with this. Not that it’s not stressful and different every day, but you have a routine.

The outdoor dining is very luck of the draw depending on where you’re at. I have a Citi Bike rack right in front, so I can’t do it there. It’s balancing where you’re doing delivery from, how you’re doing it, how many seats can you fit. It’s not going to pay the bills. And it’s July, and so many people have left the city. We’re down to another scale. I think that people boarding up in response to looting and protests has changed the tenor of the streets somewhat. You still can’t tell what’s gone permanently and what’s not, because so many places are closed.

Outdoor dining is going to be here until it’s snowing outside. It would be great if the city could move the Citi Bike rack to the front of residential buildings instead of in front of businesses. Not a big ask. It could be 20 feet. Adjusting the hours of operation would certainly help restaurants, because you have policy up against humanity and social norms and people’s need for normalcy. People aren’t thinking that they need to go to dinner at 4 so that they can have drinks after dinner at 6 so they can be done by 10. Would it be okay for the city to have sidewalk dining to 1 a.m. on Friday and Saturday, for example? That would make the difference between make it or break it for a significant number of businesses.

Liquor to-go was a lifesaver. I cannot overemphasize that. It’s not just economic. There’s an emotional need, and it’s not about getting wasted. If you’re used to having a margarita with your Mexican food, to be able to have a margarita with your Mexican food is comfort. It’s that simple. If you’re a lovely pasta from an Italian place, you want your Prosecco. Part of the ritual, part of eating and dining, was maintained that way.

We have to realize that it’s probably going to be like this for a long time. We’re still at 20 percent of your sales, in all honesty. So it’s all about scale. It’s about relationships with your purveyors, relationships with your landlord.

Looking at the business model is really, really critical right now because we’re not going to survive like this. I’m very lucky in that I am known and that I have a following. I’m not nervous. Though there was one morning where I completely lost my mind. My poor family, my poor kids—I was just cursing a blue streak. I was like, “I can’t believe I have to do this again. Are you kidding me? Again with the recession? Again with the shutdown?” During 9/11 we were below 14th Street, so we were shut down. And after Hurricane Sandy, I remember getting a review from somebody saying, “It was strangely empty.” I was like, “We had nobody living here. There was no electricity. We were in the dark.”

Something that’s been talked about for a long, long time is real estate based on valuation rather than sustainability. It’s a very weird way of looking at it. No business would ever get a loan based entirely on, “I think I could charge $40 for a burrito.” The bank would laugh at me. They’d be like, “How is that sustainable? You’ll sell two.”

So when you have real estate that’s based on whatever they can put on rent rolls, it means that you have landlords that have no incentive for their buildings to be sustainable. I have all different kinds of landlords, and I’m lucky that I have really good relationships with all of them. But the smaller landlord, like the La Palapa downtown landlord—they don’t have the luxury of just being a corporate office. They’re a family. It’s a different story. They’re much more interested in having a tenant that’s been here for 20 years, and takes care of their property, and adds value to their property.

I have friends all over the world. I have screenshots from the 18th of March from my friend’s Instagram in Shanghai and what they were doing. I’ve been in touch with folks in Houston and what they’ve gone through. And New York is like that, I’m afraid. New York is still really divided between people who take it seriously, and people who are desperate to make a buck. I don’t fault them for that desperation at all. It’s the most natural thing.

The onus has been put on the businesses to control customers in terms of safety. Psychically and culturally, it’s very difficult to control folks on the street. If the city is getting bad press because of places that are going crazy, that puts the rest of us in a really difficult position.

I think there’s going to be so many empty apartments. Maybe people who work for me will actually live in the East Village again. Who knows? I’m looking for silver linings. But that also means that there’s going to be a tremendous upheaval. You have to look at wages. You have to look at sustainability in so many different ways. We’re all using tons of plastic right now. There’s almost no way not to and make food safe, with individually packing dishes. It’s been really difficult for us to try to be more sustainable and green.

Then you really have to look at wage equity when you’re running a booth or running a takeout operation where everybody does everything. You need to be able to tip your kitchen. When you have this different model, it’s not just my bartender and my waiter who are serving. Almost everybody’s serving. When folks came back to work, I said, “Everybody’s going to do everything, so just be ready.” On any given day the staff is so small that I’m washing dishes. I started as a dishwasher, so I’m not afraid of it.

I’ve actually gone before Congress to speak about raising the federal tip minimum wage. But I also know that last year, with the increase in the minimum wage, it almost closed me down. I say that I could write my menus in French and charge 30 percent more. When you have a Mexican restaurant, there’s an ethnic bias on pricing. People say things like, “When I was in Mexico, I bought that same taco from a lady under a bridge for 50 cents.” And I’m like, “Where do you think every single male member of that lady’s family are working, sending her money? Do you really think that’s how she’s surviving?”