How The Owners Of Tacoway Beach And Caracas Arepa Bar Got Through The Pandemic
Produced by The Infatuation with
Like anyone who owns a restaurant, Andrew Day Field and Maribel Araujo spent the past 15 months grappling with change. For Andrew, the owner of Tacoway Beach, that meant figuring out how to run a seasonal restaurant (with extremely long lines) during a pandemic. And for Caracas Arepa Bar owner Maribel, it saw the closure of her long-running and beloved East Village location, even as she kept up a storefront in Williamsburg and a summer outpost on Rockaway Beach.
Now, they’re both trying something new: a combined delivery and takeout front on DoorDash. If you’re in Manhattan you can now order a taco from Tacoway Beach and an arepa from Caracas from the same place, with both turning up at your door at the same time. It’s the first time Tacoway Beach has been available in Manhattan, and also brings Caracas back to their original neighborhood.
We talked with Maribel and Andrew about how they’ve handled the challenges of the pandemic year, what adaptations and changes have helped the most, and new opportunities to grow and thrive.
ANDREW DAY FIELD: As New Yorkers, we weather the winters because we know that the summers are so awesome. But last summer due to the pandemic, we had that carpet pulled out from underneath our feet.
We opened last year the week before Fourth of July, which was intense, to say the least. The weather was gorgeous. It was the peak of summer at that point. Once it started getting hot, people were actually coming to the beach. It was a safe environment. People were setting up their beach campsites.I was super proud of how New Yorkers adapted to that situation and were respectful.
There were all of the new COVID requirements, and all the things that we were trying to figure out and put together. We were fortunate. We have a gigantic customer base. That was the biggest fear—if a ton of people start showing up, what are we going to do? How are we going to figure this situation out?
Now we’re a year and a bit into it—I don’t want to say past it—and it’s set a bunch of different gears in motion. We’re finding different ways to do things, different ways to connect.
MARIBEL ARAUJO: Last year, I reopened way before the summer because I didn’t just have Caracas in Rockaway. At that point, I also had Caracas in the East Village and Caracas in Brooklyn. We basically closed for a little over a month. Then when we got PPP money, we were able to reopen.
The reason why I opened Caracas was to connect to the culture and the country that I left behind. I understood what being an immigrant meant when I came here. I have made a promise to honor that and respect that and take care of my people. It was really challenging not having answers for them when I’m usually the one with all the answers. I didn’t know what to tell them anymore.
It was pretty tough because we were not getting guidance or support from anyone. We were kind of on our own. And we had the burden and the responsibility of enforcing all these regulations that nobody had ever tested or proven in any situation. You wake up and you check your email and Twitter, and it was like, “Now you guys have to start wearing masks and do a handstand while you check people’s temperatures.” I was like, “OK, cool. I’ll do a handstand now.”
ANDREW: In the early days of Rockaway Taco, we were on 96th Street, and the line wrapped around the block. When we moved to 87th Street, the line cut down the middle of the patio and sometimes went out the little back door. You’re just like, “OK, the line is a part of the vibe, but it doesn’t make you any more money. It just creates a massive amount of chaos.”
I’m not the biggest technology fan, but when we reopened, we switched our point-of-sale system and did the order-from-the-table sort of thing. Before, we were used to the high volume. Our entire crew knew it was chaos, and we just dealt with it. But after that first week of using the order-from-the-table part of the POS, we would finish a day, and we would be like, “Hey, I don’t feel like a wet towel that’s been wrung out.” It took the level of chaos down a notch. I was like, “This has been a solution the whole time.”
Ordering food from the table has made the kitchen flow so much better. The easiest way for us to keep producing food at affordable prices is to say to the customer, “You guys do half the work of ordering, and we’ll do all the rest.”
MARIBEL: Just getting on delivery was the biggest change for us. Before, I didn’t really think that our food was meant to be experienced the first time through takeout or delivery. But I had to switch gears and be OK with it, because we went from like 20 percent takeout and delivery to 100 percent, because that’s what we were able to do. And now in Brooklyn, we’re maybe at 35 percent takeout and delivery, even with my full patio open and indoor dining and all that. We’re trying to understand that the experience would have to come in a different way. That was a humbling experience.
Branding has been something else that we had to work on. Andrew has done an amazing job at that—creating all these stickers to identify food in a neater way. Before, we only really cared about the in-person experience. Now we have to be like, “OK, our brand is not tangible unless you are rethinking the food. So we have to transfer that information.” We had to get really creative about how to identify our arepas or our juice or our cocktails and brand it in a way that people could get a feeling for the restaurant through a bag of food.
ANDREW: Going into the DoorDash partnership in Manhattan, at first we were kind of like, “Don’t you think we should maybe wait until September to do this delivery thing, when it’s cold again?” But the DoorDash folks have been awesome, super on-point and super transparent. They were like, “Well, we don’t know that answer either.” But I think everybody on the field has to start trying things and seeing what happens.
We know as New Yorkers that when it’s cold and miserable out you’d rather order delivery. But now it’s not just the weather that changes things. It’s all of us being in this situation for a year-plus and forming those different habits. People order delivery or takeout and go to a park. In the DoorDash Caracas and Tacoway joint store, we have these group items for four to six people. You get a few arepas and a few tacos in these packs. It’s a one-button, one-click purchase where you can grab a bag of different assorted foods and go hang out. So maybe it’s not all about going to brick-and-mortar places.
The beauty of this DoorDash opportunity is to extend the season for some of our main crew. After Labor Day, it gets cold. Although that has its charm at the beach, it’s just not as popular as sunny summer days and bathing suits and beach towels.
MARIBEL: It’s also a great opportunity to experiment with making a very efficient kitchen. Both of our menus are Latin American cuisine, and there are a lot of ingredients that we share. It’s avocado slices, it’s guacamole, it’s tortillas. Our staffs can easily be trained on both. One of the things that the pandemic has definitely brought to light is the fact that the margins are really low for restaurant owners. But also for cooks and kitchen people and hospitality workers in general—people don’t feel that they’re getting a fair wage. It’s allowing us to experiment with paying people a better wage and at the same time making it a very efficient operation in terms of the ingredients, the inventory, the freshness, and all of that kind of stuff.
ANDREW: And for some up-and-coming cooks, not having to deal with the front-of-the-house part allows you to have a little bit more flexibility in the kitchen. They don’t have to worry about all of the millions of little pieces involved in running a restaurant.
MARIBEL: My main experiment now is finding a moment to breathe. I’m trying to keep working on efficiency, not just from a financial point of view, but also to improve everyone’s livelihood around the food industry.
ANDREW: Like ordering from the table, if the customers are OK with doing a little bit of the work, that’s going to free us up to be able to make their experience better. The first weekend we opened in Rockaway, the aura was just awesome, lots of smiling faces.