Ibarras creates a Mexican food empire


Opening a restaurant is risky. This is even more true 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, this restaurant succeeded and it became the base of the Ibarra family’s restaurant empire.

The success of the restaurants in the Ibarras is due to two things. The first is to take care of customers; the second is to have colleagues who respect each other, according to Emmanuel Ibarra, son and companion of Manuel Ibarra.

“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 via Mexico and then California, where he worked picking strawberries, cherries, apples and pears. Afterwards, Manuel’s brother asked him to help bus tables and perform other low-level tasks at his restaurant in Chapel Hill. 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 further south.

When Manuel Ibarra landed in Wrightsville Beach in 1991, he decided it was the perfect place and the first El Cerro Grande restaurant was launched. It served dishes that local residents were familiar with like chimichanga, burritos, and hard-shelled 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 in Galleria. He closed, but he was determined. In 1992, he opened another restaurant in the space Indochine now occupies, which soon closed as well, and then another across from the New Hanover Regional Medical Center on 17th Street. He ran this restaurant until the property the restaurant was on was purchased two years later. Undeterred, Manuel Ibarra looked for another site. In 2003 it added the Monkey Junction Restaurant and in 2008 the Military Cutoff Road Restaurant.

Additionally, Manuel Ibarra, along with his brothers, opened restaurants throughout North Carolina and in 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. Moreover, the Ibarras recognized that the port city was changing. Many people had moved to the area from California, Texas, Florida and New York. These people grew up eating traditional Mexican food and wanted to bring it here, Emmanuel Ibarra said.

The solution was El Arriero Taqueria and Zocalo, two new restaurants that offer Mexican street food like tripe soup, beef tongue tacos and sopas.

“It was a bit scary because the food was completely different,” Emmanuel Ibarra said. “We served Tex-Mex food like fajitas in case Americans wanted it, but a lot of Americans have explored more and tried our food and they love it.”

Throughout the expansion of the Ibarras restaurant empire, some things have remained constant. One is their commitment to high quality Mexican cuisine. Many of Olga Ibarra’s recipes are still on the menu, and those that are added must receive approval from the Ibarras and their customers.

Although Manuel Ibarra’s brothers took over the restaurants outside of Wilmington when he suffered a stroke, the patriarch’s nuclear and extended family are involved in every aspect of the business. Emmanuel, who grew up in the business, now co-owns it with his father.

“Some of our clients have known me since I was a child,” said Emmanuel Ibarra. “They are getting married and bringing their own children and grandchildren here to eat. People are loyal to us and we are loyal to them. It’s as if we were a big family.

At the height of the pandemic, the Ibarras, like other restaurateurs, began packaging their food and preparing it for takeout. They also scheduled their employees to work shifts, so everyone got paid and no one was fired.

The Ibarras have also turned the pandemic into something positive.

“The pandemic was scary, but it made us better and stronger, not only in service but in recognizing people’s hearts,” Emmanuel Ibarra said.

Now the Ibarras have to deal with supply chain issues. Fortunately, getting food was not a problem, they said. This is partly because some of their food comes from the sourcing company that Manuel Ibarra and his brothers started in 2010. They also buy locally when possible.

The Ibarras are always expanding, always trying new concepts in Mexican cuisine. Their new restaurant, El Mariscal, will offer Mexican-style seafood. They also plan to open new restaurants on the outskirts of Wilmington.

They arise when people ask 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 a coincidence, maybe it’s from God; it’s like an attraction,” he says. “We listen to people and opportunities arise.”



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