There are often many obstacles on the path to our dreams, and Co-owner of Caracas Arepa Bar Maribel Araujo knows this all too well. The dot-com business woman turned-restaurateur shares her incredible story of resilience along with her passion for Venezuelan cuisine, highlighting her three NYC locations from Manhattan and Brooklyn to Rockaway Beach.
Tell me a little bit about Caracas.
Caracas is a very casual, very unpretentious place that opened in 2003 in the East Village of Manhattan. It started almost as a need to keep connected to our culture, and we decided that through food was the best way to create a relationship between us as immigrants and our food.
My dad passed away when I was seven years old, and he was a diplomat and politician in Venezuela. Even though I barely have any memory, I feel like he definitely put in my blood this love for my country that I didn’t realize I had until I moved to New York. I started missing everything; from the weather and the green growing in-between the cracks of the concrete to the food and the warmth and spontaneity of the people. So I felt like I had to do a tribute to him by opening the restaurant.
For people who have never tried an arepa before, how would you describe it?
Well, I always say that arepas are our bread in the same way that Italians have pasta. Corn was obviously a native thing, and the Arepas are just a result of water, oil, salt and milled corn. They are made out of cornflower and are like a pita-pocket kind of sandwich that we grill, bake, and stuff with a bunch of ingredients. It’s the same way the Salvadorans have Pupusas and the Mexicans have Tortillas – and we have Arepas.
Did you always want to open a restaurant?
I would have never in my whole entire life thought about opening a restaurant. I barely knew how to cook.
I came to New York in 2001 with a great job. I was working for an internet company just before 9/11, and before the dot-com crisis. It was a super insane project. I had never been paid so much in my life with all the freedom in the world to do whatever I wanted. So I moved to New York because they had an office in New York City, but I didn’t know that I was going to be out of a job within the next 10 months. So that happened, and I thought I was going to be able to get a job in no time since my resume was pretty strong. And then I realized that if you don’t have experience in New York City, then you can’t do anything here. So it was really hard for me to get a job in my field, and after a lot of sending resumes [and trying to get a job], I realized that I needed to be super, super humble and try to get an unpaid job in the independent film industry however I could.
I started working as a makeup artist for free, and kind of had a moment where I said to myself “I don’t want to be famous anymore, I don’t want to try to, you know, be a super, Oscar-winning production. I don’t want to be famous – I just want to have a very simple life and be able to talk to people and serve people.” And when I went back home and told my husband at the time, “Why don’t we open an Areparia?” he looked at me and said, “What are you talking about? You barely eat, you don’t know how to cook like more than five dishes!”
So fast forward—you have this super successful restaurant, you’ve been featured in the New York Times, you have 3 locations, and then Superstorm Sandy strikes your Rockaway Beach location. What was it like to find your location swept away?
When we got to Caracas, the gate was sort of twisted but I was able to squeeze underneath the rolling gate. When I got to the other side, I was like, “Wow, I don’t have any floors.” Like literally all of my equipment was gone, the floor was gone, the structure was barely there. So it was like okay, now we have to rebuild from scratch. And I felt the fact that I moved there without knowing what I was going to do has always given me a sense of MacGyver; everything has a solution, and we can always do it together. It was about community, too. Immediately, I was like “I am not leaving these people behind. We are doing it again, and we are going to rebuild the whole entire thing and next summer we are going to be up and running.”
And not long after the Sandy disaster, one of your other locations caught on fire? How did you handle those situations back-to-back?
I remember just thinking, “I have to take my Sandy gear out.” My flashlight, my boots – because of course when the firefighters came in, they flooded the entire place. They broke windows, they even broke car windows around the restaurant. It’s something I had never experienced before. It’s kind of weird to me because talking to you right now, telling you the story, going back to that moment – it makes me sad. But it makes me proud, too.
How have you been able to overcome so many trials as a restaurant owner? What keeps you going?
I guess I say to myself, “Don’t be dramatic, you have everything that you need. There are so many people that don’t have anything,” and it’s actually fun. At the end of the day, it’s really fun and entertaining. I don’t see myself sitting in an office, working on a computer all day or not being able to learn something every day. So I guess I just remind myself of that and keep moving.
I mean, I do think that it’s possible that one day I literally hang up a sign that says For Sale and walk away. But I always think that I don’t want my story to be told that way. I don’t want my story to be the classic, “and then one day, she got crazy and ran away, and we never saw her again.”
I want my story to be a little different.
To hear more of Maribel’s story, check out Season Two, Episode Two of the Open Belly podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, or wherever you get your podcasts.
Manhattan: 91 E. 7th St. NY, NY 10009
Brooklyn: 291 Grand st., Brooklyn, NY 11211
Rockaway: 106-01 Shore Front Parkway, Queens, NY 11694