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‘Tacos Are a Part of Me:’ 28 Years After Opening Sky’s Gourmet Tacos, Barbara Burrell Reflects on Opening a New Location in DTLA During Coronavirus

[dropcap size=big]B[/dropcap]arbara Burrell remembers sitting on a stool, observing her grandmother whip up the latest family meal. Burrell followed the precision and deliberate way she cooked in the kitchen, taking in the traditionalist recipes and rules that her grandmother her.

Though Burrell, who was given the nickname of “Sky” as a child, appreciated the structure, she couldn’t help but want to experiment with recipes. When she suggested that they add cream to spaghetti sauce, she was met with a firm no. She respected this growing up but knew she wanted to change it as soon as she can.

This flair for respecting flavors but not being afraid of adding different ingredients manifested itself in Sky’s Gourmet Tacos, Burrell’s first restaurant in Los Angeles. She remembers the exact date down to the minute she opened the doors of the storefront: Thursday, March 5, 1992, at 1:44 PM.

“I'll never forget it,” Burrell said. “I looked at my sons, and I said, open the doors, I don't care. Just open the doors.”

A shrimp taco from Sky's Tacos.

Burrell grew up in a small town outside of Chicago during the 70s. While there wasn’t a vast Latino food scene there yet, her path crossed with tacos at the age of 12 when she tried her first one. “I fell in love. And [tacos] has been part of me… and when I say part [of me], I knew that you could do so many things with a taco.”

This fascination remained in the back of her mind when she moved from Illinois to California in the 70s with her two sons and ventured into facility management for numerous companies in the L.A. area. Food remained a constant in her life, continuously cooking for herself and working as a McDonald’s consultant to help open the first drive-through in California. 

Still, Burrell knew that something else waited for her and decided to resign after ten years in that field. She set her sights on tacos yet again, but this time on a grander scale. With the small savings she accumulated over the years, Burrell launched a plan to create her ideal taco spot.

Burrell took her business plan to a local bank, hoping to secure a small loan to get her restaurant off the ground, but to her dismay, she was rejected. The loan officer questioned the legitimacy of her restaurant, referring to it as a taco “joint” instead.

Her beginnings were not without obstacles. In a seeming succession, Burrell was facing the civil unrest brought on by the Rodney King riots, the 1994 Northridge earthquake, an unexpected health diagnosis, the death of her fiancé, and the death of her youngest son, Jerry. 

“So my business wasn't taken seriously. I took it seriously, but it wasn't taken seriously as a whole because I was a woman,” Burrell said. “I believe had that been a man, I believe they would have gone, run right in and you know, [supported him]... But being a woman, it's a different walk.”

Burrell knew she had to take things into her own hands, and raised enough money with the help of family and friends to open her restaurant in 1992. “I felt like I was the most blessed person.” However, her beginnings were not without obstacles. In a seeming succession, Burrell was facing the civil unrest brought on by the Rodney King riots, the 1994 Northridge earthquake, an unexpected health diagnosis, the death of her fiancé, and the death of her youngest son, Jerry. 

He and her eldest son, Victor, helped Burrell with the business early on. Jerry was taking a more hands-on approach while Victor handled the background mechanics of the restaurant. Despite this massive loss, Burrell’s mother stressed the importance of continuing to work the next morning. 

“I said, I don't want to go back. Burrell said, ‘Oh yeah. That's why you got to go back because Jerry would want you to go back, and if you don’t go back, you never will,’” Burrell said. “I went in that next morning, and my mother had never been so, so correct about anything.” 

With that encouragement, Burrell continued, offering L.A. residents an assortment of a chicken, turkey, beef, and shrimp tacos to start. Now, the menu has expanded along with the business adding additional items, including shiitake mushroom tacos, lobster tacos, burgers, tortas, and even cheesecake.

 

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Let’s taco about dinner - what’s your go to order? We’re thinking one of each 😉📷: @winniesbalance_

A post shared by Sky's Tacos (@skystacos) on

Sky’s Gourmet Tacos has grown from a storefront in L.A. to a catering service (Sky’s Gourmet Catering), a market place (Sky’s Gourmet Market Place), and by the end of August, a new delivery and take-out location in Downtown L.A.

As the country reels with COVID-19 complications, social justice movements calling for better treatment of African Americans are also taking a forefront in national conversations. Burrell said that the Black Lives Matter movement has been “positive” for restaurants as people flock to support black businesses. 

The effects of COVID-19 did not spare Burrell’s business, and this new location caters to those looking to enjoy a meal without dining in. “The sad part about this is is that restaurants all over the world have had to close. So this saddens me because I'm not going to sit up and gloat...I'm going to say I've been very, very blessed and we don't know what tomorrow's going to bring, but my prayers are with all restauranteurs because we have had a blow. This is a blow.”

As the country reels with COVID-19 complications, social justice movements calling for better treatment of African Americans are also taking a forefront in national conversations. Burrell said that the Black Lives Matter movement has been “positive” for restaurants as people flock to support black businesses. 

August is Black Business Month, and reports of increased interest in Black-owned businesses have been reported nationwide. “Do you know about us? Have you thought about frequenting our restaurants and now they have because of Black Lives Matter, because there is an insurgence of that support culturally,” Burrell said.

Sky’s Gourmet Tacos locations are take-out, delivery, and patio dining for the time being, but Burrell said that customers will still get the “Sky’s Taco Experience”— her tacos, a welcoming atmosphere, and a cheesecake she says is like no other.

Sky's Gourmet Tacos has three locations around Los Angeles. All orders will be placed online through skystacos.com and additional delivery applications such as Postmates and caviar. This location will be the third Los Angeles outpost and will be located at 358 West 38th Street.

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