The electrifying convergence of a pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement has changed the landscape of Los Angeles forever, redefining the city as we know it and leaving us in a new normal with more questions than answers. But for the dauntless spirit and success story that is Barbara Burrell – the sky is the limit.
It’s Black Restaurant Week and the owner of Sky’s Gourmet Tacos, Burrell is celebrating her 28-year-old business in Mid City that she has fought all odds – as a single African American mother of two – to not only sustain, but expand. As she tells it, it was all of those setbacks (and healthy amount of spite) to which she credits her success and survival.
“I saw the problems sure; I saw the issues of being an African American,” Burrell tells L.A. Weekly about wanting to open up her own taco stand after growing weary of the corporate world in 1992. “I tried to get a loan at the bank. They all laughed at me, even though I had good credit. Of course I saw the differences, but I had to go on. I borrowed money from my sisters and my family and was self-funded from the first day. Right or wrong, we just opened the doors. That was the beginning of a journey that is still not complete. We’re still on that road.”
But there have been plenty of bumps along that road.
“Just as the business got going, my fiancée dropped dead of a heart attack,” says Burrell in Sky’s bricked courtyard. “He was about 42 and we had enjoyed so much together. Then I was diagnosed with late stage breast cancer. Thankfully, I had these great two boys who could hold up the business while I went through treatment. Then my youngest son was killed in a motorcycle accident. He loved the taco business. The day he was killed, my mother told me I had to go right back into the business to help keep it alive. Even though I was in the midst of my health inconvenience, the taco had become such an integral part of a bigger picture. I wasn’t in touch with big pictures at that moment – the why’s. I just wanted to survive. I had to keep pushing.”
Burrell came to L.A. from Waukegan, Illinois, in the ‘70s as a divorcee with kids in tow. It was in that a small town outside of Chicago she discovered the taco. She caught on to tacos one summer when, at age 12, she begged her mother to take her to a restaurant with the picture of a taco painted on the outside.
“I wondered what that thing was. Tacos were not a staple back then, especially in a one-horse town in Illinois. We had no diversity in that area. I can’t tell you if it was good or bad, but I can tell you it was the jumpstart of the taco in my life. From then on, I started eating tacos through marriage, pregnancies, divorces. It became my staple.”
After saving every penny from various corporate jobs over the years, she continued on the taco trail, fully aware that she wasn’t the only kid on the block.
“Starting a business, I never thought ‘oh, will it work?’ I said, ‘I’m doing tacos and I’m going to do tacos the best that I can.’ I was always taught not to care what it looks like, go for it and do your best. Good, better, best. That’s what you strive for,” says Burrell. She called it Sky’s Gourmet Tacos, named after her mother’s favorite 40’s era restaurant Sky’s in Atlanta, Georgia. Her motto became “Mexican with a splash of soul.”
After a lot of struggle, better things were starting to unfold. Although she never met him, she credits an undercover Jonathan Gold review in 1998 for putting Sky’s Gourmet Tacos on the map. She soon outgrew her taco stand and moved down the road into her larger current location in 2018. She opened the Sky’s Gourmet Market Place in Marina del Rey in 2016, which sells a refined original menu and also functions as a full deli and grocery store.
August is Black Business month and on Saturday, Aug. 15, Burrell and team will be opening a third location downtown for takeout and delivery which will feature the signature items she has become famous for, like marinated lobster tacos, shitake mushroom tacos a wild rice and yam burrito as well her highly acclaimed cheesecake which comes in original, pineapple, caramel crunch, and mango flavors. Plans are also underway for a national line of sauces and seasonings, and a location within the Ram’s stadium post-COVID.
Despite a turbulent year for the restaurant industry, the grandmother of two’s undying faith and perseverance always have her looking for the silver lining, with the intersection of the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement being especially significant – she has nothing but respect and admiration for the young people leading the charge.
“Black Lives Matter and the pandemic have gotten everyone’s attention and Black Restaurant Week has never mattered more,” Burrell says. “We’re all at attention right now and there is a vehicle called Black Restaurant Week that has opened up for diverse cultures and their menus and a black woman doing tacos. That’s tremendous support and value.”
Black Restaurant Week was launched in 2016 by founder Warren Luckett in Houston in order to shine a light on minority businesses, aid them in building community awareness and celebrate the flavors of African American, African and Caribbean cuisine with a series of regional cultural events. Other participants include ComfortLA, Dulan’s, Post and Beam and Harold and Belle’s.
“I have such respect for those young people of all races who have marched together. This is their time. They are a silver lining. But there’s always a tremendous cost for change in our society and change within cultures and the cost has been tremendous and we’re still paying it. They’re saying ‘you be you and I’ll be me and we can come together.’ Wow, what a way to be, that untainted. How does it affect businesses? It’s a plus. They don’t walk in and out of a place because it’s of any certain persuasion or intimidation, they’re just ‘hey, you got some ketchup?’ Respect them. I may not embrace all of their ideology, but I don’t have to. They are here for their time and their season to take it on. There is some greatness within this movement. There are some great minds. They are here for a reason and a great space of people. Their thoughts are supposed to be different from ours. … How they are integrated – it works out. Give them their due.”
And at time when Burrell sees businesses closing around her, she feels as if her own doors were closing – which only happened once in her business history, when martial law was declared during the Rodney King riots.
“I know the sweat and tears that it takes to keep the business going, even in the good times,” she says as tears well up in her own eyes. “This is teaching every business owner something else – don’t take those good times for granted. Everything changes and there will always be a shift. It feels like it’s the end of the world, but we are adaptable creatures and it will pass. Look at darkness as a mystery. Every day is dark, but it keeps unfolding.”
Queen Burrell has felt the losses, especially the lapse of daily catering to surrounding high rise office buildings. She wisely hopped on to the delivery platforms early on in the game four years ago, saying that using their marketing tools is worth the fees. She doesn’t plan to open up for any dining-in until it’s completely safe and sanctioned and current hours are limited. She believes that restaurant owners will come back not with a weariness, but an inspired newness once the pandemic passes.
“The newness will get us through, and I believe that in my heart,” she says. “There will be new thoughts and new ideas. We’ve all had a tremendous lesson. You want to look at it from a different perspective, not just as loss and failure. Frankly, every failure is a success. You need to just settle back and be kind to yourself. We are in tremendous peril with the pressure right now. But if you can go the distance regardless of how many wolves are at the door – press on. You are going to see daylight. I’d say this to any new business owner right now – if you can, hang in there. This is going to pass.”
Sky’s Gourmet Tacos, 5303 W Pico Blvd., Mid-City; (833) SKY-TACO. https://skystacos.com