Opening a restaurant is risky. Especially if you are an immigrant who does not speak English well. These are just two of the hurdles Manuel Ibarra faced when he opened his first restaurant, El Cerro Grande, in Wrightsville Beach. However, this restaurant succeeded and became the basis of the restaurant empire of the Ibarra family.

The success of Ibarras restaurants is due to two things. First, it is customer care; secondly, colleagues who respect each other, according to Emmanuel Ibarra, son and partner of Manuel Ibarra.

“You have to have a good team and you have to give good food and good service,” he said. “After that, everything else falls into place.”

Manuel Ibarra came to North Carolina via Mexico and then via California where he worked picking strawberries, cherries, apples and pears. Manuel’s brother then asked him to help serve tables and other small tasks at his Chapel Hill restaurant. However, Manuel Ibarra’s brother soon decided to expand and asked him to look further south for a good location for a restaurant.

When Manuel Ibarra landed in Wrightsville Beach in 1991, he decided that this was the place, and the first El Cerro Grande restaurant opened. It served dishes that the locals were familiar with, such as chimichangas, burritos, and hard-shell tacos. The food was good and authentic – the recipes came straight from the kitchen of Manuel Ibarra’s wife, Olga.

Later that year, Manuel Ibarra opened his second restaurant at the Gallery. It closed, but he was determined. In 1992, he opened another restaurant at what is now Indochina, which soon closed as well, and then another restaurant across the street from the New Hanover Regional Medical Center on 17th Street. He ran this restaurant until the property containing the restaurant was purchased two years later. Undeterred, Manuel Ibarra looked for another place. In 2003, he added the Monkey Junction restaurant, and in 2008, the Military Cutoff Road restaurant.

In addition, Manuel Ibarra and 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 open a restaurant in Wilmington that served more traditional Mexican food. In addition, the Ibarras realized that the port city was changing. Many people have moved to the area from California, Texas, Florida, and New York. According to Emmanuel Ybarra, these people grew up with traditional Mexican food and wanted to try it here.

The solution was El Arriero Taqueria and Zocalo, two new eateries offering Mexican street food such as tripe soup, beef tongue tacos and sopa.

“It was a little scary because the food was completely different,” said Emmanuel Ibarra. “We served some Tex-Mex dishes like fajitas in case the Americans wanted it, but a lot of Americans are more exploring and tasting our food and they love it.”

Throughout the expansion of Ibarras’ restaurant empire, some things have remained the same. One of them is their commitment to high quality Mexican food. Many of Olga Ibarra’s recipes are still on the menu and any additions must be approved by the Ibarra family and their customers.

Although Manuel Ybarra’s brothers took over restaurants outside of Wilmington when he suffered 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 clients have known me since childhood,” said Emmanuel Ibarra. “They get married and bring their children and grandchildren here to eat. People are so loyal to us, and we to them. It’s like we’re a big family.”

In the midst of the pandemic, Ybarra, like other restaurant owners, began to package food and prepare it for takeaway. They also assigned their employees to work in shifts, so everyone was paid and no one was released.

The Ibarras have also turned the pandemic into something positive.

“The pandemic has been frightening, but it has made us better and stronger, not only in ministry, but also in getting to know the hearts of people,” said Emmanuel Ibarra.

Now the Ibarras have to deal with supply chain problems. Fortunately, there were no problems with food. This is partly because some of their products come from a supply company that Manuel Ibarra and his brothers opened in 2010. They also buy locally whenever possible.

Ibarras is still expanding, trying new concepts in Mexican cuisine. Their newest restaurant, El Mariscal, will feature Mexican-inspired seafood. They are also considering opening new restaurants on the outskirts of Wilmington.

People come to them asking them to open a restaurant. Then, when the Ibarra start looking for a place, it opens up, often within a week or so, Manuel Ibarra said.

“Maybe it’s a coincidence, maybe it’s from God; it’s like an attraction,” he said. “We listen to people and opportunities appear.”


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