Arepa Lady restaurant says it’s being forced out

By Jennifer Nguyen & Amara Omeokwe

Six Months’ Notice

The Arepa Lady, a beloved restaurant in Jackson Heights, Queens, may not be in the neighborhood for much longer. In a tweet sent Aug. 15, the restaurant announced that it has six months to move.

Maria Cano in front of the Arepa Lady storefront. (Source: @ArepaLady Instagram)

Alejandro Osorio, the restaurant’s manager and son of the business’ founder, Maria Cano, said he learned the business would be forced to relocate after receiving a phone call from the building’s landlord earlier that week.

“I was just sad,” Osorio said of receiving the call.

City permit applications show the building’s owners want to redevelop the site where the restaurant sits.

City records show the owners of the property where the restaurant sits at 77–02 Roosevelt Ave. are looking to redevelop the site into a seven-story, mixed-use building. Osorio said he first learned of the owners’ intentions several months earlier, but was told not to immediately worry. That all changed when he received the phone call.

“It’s disheartening after all the work we put in here, just to be here,” Osorio said.

Osorio with Cano in front of their storefront. (Source: @ArepaLady Instagram)

The restaurant opened its brick-and-mortar location in late June 2014 at the corner of 77th Street and Roosevelt Avenue. Prior, Arepa Lady operated for three decades as a seasonal food cart two blocks north of the restaurant’s current location. There, founder Maria Cano sold several varieties of the classic Colombian “arepa” – a pancake-like patty made of corn or cornmeal and topped with cheese, meats and sauces. Over the years, her food won critical acclaim and made the cart a frequent stop for both tourists and locals. The popularity continued when the family transitioned to the restaurant.

“We’re really proud of it: Everything that my mom has done, what she accomplished,” Osorio said.

Now, he’s focused on figuring out how to preserve it.

“We don’t want to leave the area. We want to stay here. We grew up here. We live here. My whole family lives here. We’re really invested in the neighborhood.”
-Alejandro Osorio
An Arepa Lady fan reacted on Twitter to news of the restaurant’s pending move.
The Arepa Lady restaurant at 77–02 Roosevelt Ave. in Jackson Heights, Queens (left). Arepas being cooked in the restaurant’s kitchen (right).

The Backstory

Before immigrating from Colombia more than 30 years ago, Cano worked in several government jobs in Medellin and served as a judge until life became “kind of dangerous” in her hometown. As a single mother, she wanted work that allowed her a flexible schedule to raise her four children — and opening a food cart to sell arepas allowed her to make a living while staying close to her heritage. The original truck was located at 79th Street and Roosevelt Avenue.

Arepas have an expansive history in South American cuisine. Colombian arepas, in particular, come in a myriad of varieties — from a sweeter, yellow-corn arepa de choclo to the doughier, white-corn iteration called arepa de queso. They’re a staple in Colombian households, so it’s no surprise that these corn cakes are popular in Jackson Heights.

“There’s a lot of Colombians in the area,” Osorio explained as one of the reasons why his family settled in Jackson Heights.

According to the Department of City Planning, there were more than 94,000 Colombians living in the New York City as of 2010, with approximately 70,290 of them living in Queens. But the city’s affinity for arepas doesn’t begin and end with the Colombian community. Arepa Lady is a beloved Jackson Heights institution among locals and visitors of all backgrounds.

An arepa de queso (left). Cano poses near her food cart (middle). Osorio’s “Arepa Lady” tattoo on his left hand (right). (Source: @ArepaLady Instagram)

Workers & Customers Share Their Worries

Fans of Arepa Lady are especially vocal about their feelings regarding the imminent building demolition. Despite just recently relocating to Queens from Williamsburg, Brooklyn in May, customer Rachel Adrian already understands what Arepa Lady means to the Jackson Heights community.

“I don’t necessarily think change is a bad thing, but I wouldn’t want these places to be pushed out and replaced by just residential buildings or generic corporations,” Adrian said.

Melva Ramirez and Juan Simmonds prepare arepas for the day’s lunch crowd.

Arepa Lady has remained a tight-knit affair since its inception in the 1980s. Of the 15 employees working at Arepa Lady, many of them include Osorio’s wife, nephews, and cousins.

“We’re worried about [the employees] the most,” Osorio said. “ The staff is like family, even the ones who aren’t blood-related.”

Waitress Jackeline Klinger is a recognizable face at Arepa Lady and is always thrilled to interact with customers, even if the most recent conversations are about the restaurant’s move. Her social media posts also create an even deeper rapport with frequent restaurant-goers.

“I put pictures on Instagram and people recognize me,” Klinger said. “Not as a waitress, as a person. They say, ‘Oh my God, she’s a nice person, an arepa lady.’”

Klinger also understands what Cano’s accomplishments mean to the community, which makes the restaurant’s move even more upsetting to her.

“I feel so happy for her because she worked so hard,” she explained. “This job is so hard for any kind of woman, and especially a Spanish woman.”

What’s Next

Osorio’s main concern now is finding an affordable place near the restaurant’s current location.

“I don’t know how we’re going to do it, to find space around here,” he said. “Around here, it’s already getting overdeveloped. Starting from 72nd [Street] and down, you see buildings popping up everywhere.”

Osorio said he considered a vacant space on 79th Street and 37th Avenue. However, when he inquired, he learned the rent is more than three times the restaurant’s current rent of almost $4,500 per month.

Leslie Ramos, executive director of the 82nd Street Partnership – an organization that offers marketing and other support to businesses in the 82nd Street Business Improvement District (BID) – said she has reached out to the restaurant and offered to assist them in finding a new location.

The 82nd Street Partnership has offered to help the restaurant find a new space.

“We love the Arepa Lady. They are an institution in the neighborhood. They are a wonderful, loving family, and caring,” Ramos said. “For me, it was a little bit of panic [to hear the news], but immediately I went to solution mode and wishing mode that they hopefully will find a spot on 82nd Street and stay in the community.”

However, Osorio said rents in the BID, which runs along 82nd Street from 32nd Avenue to Baxter Avenue, are also likely too high.

One Twitter user offered support for Arepa Lady, writing, “how can we help? is there a way to give donations? venmo? paypal?”

Despite the challenges of finding an affordable place, Osorio remains encouraged by community support and says people have continued to send him leads on potential places to move. Additionally, he said his mother’s example has taught him not to fret too much.

“My mom came here with no money, with four kids. She started that cart and when she started working there, she would make 30, 40 bucks a night. So she just laughs it off. She’s tough [and says], ‘Don’t worry about it, you know, you’ll find something and we’re okay.’”
-Alejandro Osorio

Optimism combined with good food has been a winning recipe at Arepa Lady for years and it seems to be one that won’t change any time soon.