Opening a restaurant is risky. It’s even more so if you are an immigrant who speaks little English. These are just two of the obstacles Manuel Ibarra faced when he opened his first restaurant, El Cerro Grande, in Wrightsville Beach. However, that restaurant succeeded, and it became the foundation for the Ibarra family’s restaurant empire.
The success of the Ibarras’ restaurants results from two things. The first is taking care of customers; the second is having colleagues who respect one another, according to Emmanuel Ibarra, Manuel Ibarra’s son and partner.
“You have to have a good team, and you have to give good food and good service,” he said. “After that, the rest falls into place.”
Manuel Ibarra came to North Carolina by way of Mexico and then California, where he worked picking strawberries, cherries, apples and pears. Then Manuel’s brother asked him to help out bussing tables and performing other low-level tasks at his Chapel Hill restaurant. However, it wasn’t long before Manuel Ibarra’s brother decided to expand and asked him to look for a good place for a restaurant farther south.
When Manuel Ibarra landed in Wrightsville Beach in 1991, he decided it was the spot, and the first El Cerro Grande restaurant was launched. It served foods the local residents were familiar with such as chimichanga, burritos and hard-shell tacos. The food was good, and it was authentic – the recipes came straight from the kitchen of Manuel Ibarra’s wife, Olga.
Later that year, Manuel Ibarra opened his second restaurant in Galleria. It closed, but he was determined. In 1992 he opened another restaurant in the space that Indochine now occupies, which soon also closed, then another across the street from New Hanover Regional Medical Center on 17th Street. He ran that restaurant until the property the restaurant was on was purchased two years later. Undeterred, Manuel Ibarra sought yet another site. In 2003, he added the Monkey Junction restaurant, and in 2008 the Military Cutoff Road restaurant.
In addition, Manuel Ibarra, with his brothers, opened restaurants throughout North Carolina and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
In 2014, Manuel Ibarra and his sons decided to try something new. They wanted to bring a restaurant that served more traditional Mexican food to Wilmington. Also, the Ibarras recognized that the Port City was changing. A lot of people had moved to the area from California, Texas, Florida and New York. These folks grew up eating traditional Mexican food and wanted to get it here, Emmanuel Ibarra said.
The solution was El Arriero Taqueria and Zocalo, two new eateries that feature Mexican street food such as tripe soup, beef tongue tacos and sopas.
“It was a little scary because the food was completely different,” said Emmanuel Ibarra. “We did serve some Tex-Mex food such as fajitas in case American people wanted it, but a lot of American people have been exploring more and trying our food and they love it.”
Throughout the expansion of the Ibarras’ restaurant empire, certain things have remained constant. One is their commitment to high-quality Mexican food. Many of Olga Ibarra’s recipes are still on the menu, and any that are added must meet the approval of the Ibarras and their customers.
Though Manuel Ibarra’s brothers took over the restaurants outside of Wilmington when he had a stroke, the patriarch’s nuclear and extended family is involved in every aspect of the business. Emmanuel, who grew up in the business, is now co-owner with his father.
“Some of our customers have known me since I was a kid,” said Emmanuel Ibarra. “They get married and bring their own kids and grandkids here to eat. People are that loyal to us and we are to them. It’s like we are a big family.”
During the worst of the pandemic, the Ibarras, like other restaurant owners, started packaging their food and making it to go. They also scheduled their employees to work in shifts, so everyone was paid, and no one was let go.
The Ibarras also turned the pandemic into something positive.
“The pandemic was frightening, but it made us better and stronger, not just in service but in recognizing people’s hearts,” said Emmanuel Ibarra.
Now the Ibarras have to deal with supply chain issues. Fortunately, getting food hasn’t been a problem, they said. That is partly due to the fact that some of their food comes from the supply company Manuel Ibarra and his brothers started in 2010. They also buy locally when possible.
The Ibarras are still expanding, still trying out new concepts in Mexican food. Their newest restaurant, El Mariscal, will feature Mexican-style seafood. They are also considering opening new restaurants on Wilmington’s outskirts.
They come about by people asking them to open a restaurant. Then, when the Ibarras start looking for a place, one opens up, often within a week or so, Manuel Ibarra said.
“Maybe it’s coincidence, maybe it comes from God; it’s like an attraction,” he said. “We listen to people, and opportunities come up.”