By Gaige Davila
The Laguna Madre community, its winter residents, and people across the country are continuing to donate to a beloved Port Isabel restaurant impacted by COVID-19.
Manuel’s Restaurant, through a GoFundMe campaign started on Jan. 13 by Frank Barroso, son of owner Jose “Manuel,” are raising money to remain in business.
More than a week ago, Manuel’s Restaurant closed so Jose Barroso could rest by request of a doctor. Frank Barroso stressed that his father is not sick with COVID-19, receiving a negative test. Manuel’s was supposed to reopen on Tuesday, Jan. 19, but Jose Barroso was still not feeling well.
Frank Barroso started the GoFundMe page to cover the restaurant’s bills while they were closed. As of press time, the GoFundMe page has raised $12,268 of its $25,000 goal. Barroso said they’ll be taking out money to help reopen the business, once his father is well enough to work again. The money will pay “every bill” Manuel’s has, Barroso said.
Before the closure, weekends were busy at Manuel’s, with weekdays slow, Barroso said. In March, Manuel’s served their food to-go only, once COVID-19 cases were confirmed in the Laguna Madre area. Manuel’s reopened their dining room on November 25, with six tables inside and three tables outside. Barroso is hopeful that they’ll reopen soon with the influx of Winter Texans expected through February.
“We keep getting those messages, ‘hey, we’re coming over, hang in there,’” Barroso said, referring to returning Winter Texans who have yet to move down to their second homes in the Rio Grande Valley. “Everyone’s wanting to help. That’s a good feeling.”
Manuel’s Restaurant also needs to pay back their Paycheck Protection Program loan, a federal loan from the Small Business Administration for small businesses to keep their employees through the COVID-19 pandemic. The restaurant received the payment notice in December.
With those employees now gone, Barroso waits tables and handles to-go orders while Jose cooks. Frank’s son, Isaac, before the school year started, would do prep work. Barroso is now spreading his time between Manuel’s and his new business, Head Hunters Smoke Shop, but the stress is mounting.
“I get my one hour nap,” Barroso said. “That’s what keeps me going. I’ve got a mortgage. I can’t even pay my bills right now.”
Alleviating the stress, ever so slightly, is the help that Manuel’s is receiving from longtime customers, whether through their GoFundMe donations or providing supplies for the restaurant. The tents that are outside of Manuel’s, which hover over the restaurant’s three picnic tables, were given by a longtime customer.
“To have customers like that, to help in any way,” Barroso said. “We love it. (Expletive), they’re family.”
He continued, “This is all a learning experience for everyone,” Barroso said. “We’ve been through it all. We continue to go through new things. This is all new.”
Their history is indeed storied. Manuel’s started at the Padre South Hotel, at the intersection of Gulf Boulevard and East Harbor Street, in 1983. The owners approached Jose Barroso and offered him the restaurant space, rent free, starting the beloved restaurant. In 1984, Manuel’s moved to the Miramar Motel, a now vacant building bordered by a Denny’s. After the Miramar Motel, Manuel’s moved to the former site of Island Pharmacy, now occupied by Grapevine Cafe. In 1999, the restaurant moved across the bridge to Port Isabel, calling their location on Maxan Street home ever since.
As the Laguna Madre area endured hurricanes, economic crises and now the COVID-19 pandemic, so too did Manuel’s, regularly contributing to the community through fundraisers, donations and feeding people.
With that mutual relationship between Manuel’s and the community in which it lies in mind, it was no surprise that longtime customers were shocked to find a post on Manuel’s Facebook page that said the restaurant was for sale. The post has since been deleted, but Barroso said the restaurant is still technically for sale. However, Barroso, stressing how much he loved working at Manuel’s and the friendships he’s made there, is doing everything he can to keep the restaurant in his family.
“I’m not one to give up, (expletive) no,” Barroso said. “People want us to succeed, they want us to stay around. We’ll see how it goes.”