Taco Time: Burrell opened the first Sky’s Gourmet Tacos in 1992 in Arlington Heights.

Barbara Burrell, founder of Sky’s Gourmet Tacos, was aware of the risks when she jumped into L.A.’s crowded taco scene in 1992.

“The question was, ‘Well, there are a lot of tacos around here, what’s going to make yours different?’” Burrell said during a recent chat on the sunny patio of Sky’s new location at 5303 Pico Blvd. in the mid-Wilshire neighborhood.

“I said, ‘OK, it’s going to be Mexican food with a splash of soul,’” she continued. “I’m going to add a kind of Southern flair to it. I defined it by the spices…and by the heart that’s put into it.” The restaurant also offers ribs, burgers and specialty cheesecakes.

Sky’s opened its first restaurant a few blocks west of the current Pico location in 1992, relocating to the roomier new space in April.

Burrell launched the venture in her 40s after holding executive positions in various corporations including in the fast food industry, but even as a child she had tacos on the brain. Taco restaurants were rare in Chicago during her youth, but Burrell’s parents managed to find them.

“I was a taco aficionada – it was that simple,” she said. “I carried it through my life, it’s a food that I love.”

Some 25 years after the initial location opened, Burrell has gone on an expansion spree. In 2016, Burrell opened Sky’s Gourmet Marketplace in Marina del Rey’s high-end Marina City Club apartment and condo development, offering deli sandwiches and convenience store items along with tacos. And, two months ago, Sky’s Gourmet Tacos and Marketplace opened at the JM Eagle Building on West Century Blvd. in Westchester.

Burrell does nothing without due contemplation, and said she waited so many years to add locations because she was struck with the inspiration to explore the concept selling hot foods alongside home necessities.

“I call it tacos and toilet paper, it’s a new business model,” she said. The Marina location also just received its liquor license.

Burrell said Sky’s grossed $50,000 in its first year, and now has $1.5 million in revenue, which comes from three locations now under the umbrella of Sky’s Gourmet Marketplace Inc.

That revenue is surpassed by Sky’s catering, the largest part of the business, which brings in an additional $4.5 million annually. Sky’s Gourmet Catering began a few years after the opening of the first restaurant, providing food for parties, weddings and other events. It later became a vendor for larger entities including USC, the City of Los Angeles, Paramount Pictures and Sony Pictures Studios.

Fast start

Burrell’s father was a jazz musician and her mother an avid cook. Burrell trained as a cook during her years at Michigan State University, working in various local restaurants including Polish, Italian and Mexican. Cooking remained on the back burner, so to speak, during her corporate career. After nearly two decades, she quit that stressful world for what she called a nine-month vacation.

“I had a ball, (but) in that ninth month, I said, ‘Well, what are you going to do now?’” she recalled. “You don’t have a job, and you’ve spent your money.’

“I did my usual novena (and) I awakened one morning at 6 a.m. and said: ‘Tacos.’ That was the beginning.”

Burrell launched Sky’s with the aid of family and friends who helped build out the original restaurant in the rented space. That included hands-on effort from her sons, Victor and Jerry, who is now deceased. Victor remains a part of the business.

The business grew slowly. Burrell spent years investing in commercial and residential real estate in Mt. Washington and near the Pico Boulevard restaurant to support the venture.

Famous fans

Burrell is noted for reaching out to the local community surrounding the Pico location, but her connections throughout Los Angeles extend far beyond the neighborhood.

One unlikely fan is German-born actress Maria Riva, 93-year-old daughter of movie star Marlene Dietrich. Riva credits Burrell with introducing her to the taco, now a favorite snack.

Riva said she met Burrell through a mutual celebrity connection, the late Pearl Bailey.

“I’m proud of her – she’s got a lot of guts,” Riva said. “She loves to cook, but she also loves to feed. There is a certain kind of sweetness to people who want to feed people.”

Another fan is Los Angeles City Council President Herb Wesson. “We love Barbara,” he said. “I think she’s been a stabilizing force in the community.

“We have some unbelievably good taco joints in this city of L.A., probably a zillion of them,” Wesson added. “But Sky’s is a unique blend of Mexican, kinda sorta, with a Cajun wraparound to it. Her personality and her recipe is a combo for success.”

Like Wesson, Burrell believes there’s no limit for Sky’s.

“I see Sky’s globally in a very short period of time,” she asserted. “The plan to get there, I’m not sure, but I have yet to finish my work.”

A devoted mentor to young women, Burrell said the climate has improved for women entrepreneurs since 1992. Now, she said, it’s easier to impress with high standards than with high heels.

“I’m tough in that I’m not warm and fuzzy,” she said. “My delivery is not always sweet, but I’m here to support you.

“Twenty-five years ago, when I started out, there wasn’t the level of respect there is now,” Burrell added. “We have fought for respect through our education, our exposure, and our leadership abilities. We fought for this.”

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