From pandemic crisis to family tragedy to near-death experience, and finally to hope for the future.
By Victor Medina as told to Marisel Salazar
Before the pandemic, Victor Medina ran La Pulperia restaurant with locations on Manhattan’s Upper East Side and Hell’s Kitchen. Those restaurants were shut down by pandemic closures, and then Medina himself contracted coronavirus. So did his brother back in Mexico. After a month in the hospital, Medina survived to begin recovery. His brother did not. Despite these hardships, Medina launched El Paso, a new restaurant in Harlem.
Si no es Chana, es Juana. If it’s not one thing, it’s the other.
I was in the restaurant business for 25 years before I started my very own restaurant, La Pulperia. It’s not only my business, but a restaurant that is part of the fabric of New York City. It took me about five years to build the La Pulperia brand. And when the restaurant finally started to see success, that light at the end of the tunnel, COVID happened.
I am from Puebla, Mexico, and my partner, Chef Carlos Barroz, is from Argentina. We have a very multicultural staff—cooks from Philadelphia and New Jersey. A melting pot place. La Pulperia wasn’t just about food. People recognized it because we were very welcoming, como Latinos.
La Pulperia first opened in Hell’s Kitchen in 2014, followed by an additional location on the Upper East Side in September 2015. It was the place to go on the Upper East Side. We had music on the weekends and a popular drag brunch. We were known for our barbecue pacu fish ribs, salmon brûlée, salmon tartare with cream, guacamole, empanadas, and seafood towers. The menu was eclectic and different. If something wasn’t working, then we did something else. Si no es Chana, es Juana.
Part of my success in this business is because I think out of the box—how I can engage with the community and embrace everyone. La Pulperia became a place for Latin Americans and people from all backgrounds.
When we did our first drag brunch a couple years ago, people told me I was crazy, that the neighborhood wasn’t ready for it—to be careful. They said Hell’s Kitchen was fine to do a drag brunch, but not the Upper East Side. Within a year, the drag brunches became really successful. Brunch was booked out a month in advance. Every drag queen that worked in Manhattan was calling to perform at La Pulperia. My main queens were Nicole Onoscopi, Misty Mountains, Ritzy Bitz, and Gilda Wabbit.
We were doing so well last year in 2019. I was hitting 8 percent revenue. If you are a good operator in the restaurant industry, you have 5 percent revenue. If you have 8 to 10 percent revenue, then you’re doing almost everything right. “2020, this is going to be my year,” I thought to myself. In February of 2020, we were completely booked for March. The weather also gets better from March onward. Busy times for restaurants are from March through June. July and August is when everyone goes away. In September, everyone comes from summer vacation, and it gets busy again. I was expecting to have a busy spring season. On the weekends, I could seat 100 to 150 covers per seating on average—usually 350 covers each day.
Although I was making $3.5 million in net sales yearly—which at 8 percent revenue is $280,000 a year—a lot was eaten up by rent and insurance. My rent was very high, given the real estate—$26,300 a month plus $9,000 in operating expenses such as electricity, water, worker’s compensation, disability, liability, and other fees like cable and social media. Thirty-five percent of weekly sales went to payroll, although some weeks it was more. We needed to do sales of at least $45,000 a week to just break even. But there are still hidden costs like broken equipment and so on. It was a heavy load to try to make this much money to support everyone.
Everything changed in March.
On March 16th, 2020, when restaurants had to close due to the coronavirus, I was so sad. You try to blame everyone else. Why does the government do this to us? The people that depend on me and my business—what are they going to do? The landlords didn’t want to help us or negotiate. I had to lay off everyone—22 people at La Pulperia Upper East Side, and 11 at the Hell’s Kitchen location. And most of these people have families. I said “I’m sorry,” but what more could I do? It was the most difficult weekend. I didn’t know how I was going to make it, because no one knows how long it would last.
And then I ended up in the hospital with COVID for a whole month.
I am in La Pulperia the Saturday night before restaurants had to close. Half of the guests cancelled brunch that day. I was having several drinks with my partner. I told myself, “I have to stop drinking.” But it was my last drink at my restaurant, I knew. That Sunday morning around 5 a.m., I started feeling bad. I’ve never had a hangover before. I started feeling a little bit sick. My wife said teasingly, “See? That’s what happens when you stay out late drinking.” Monday, we had to close the restaurant. We gave our employees the food that was about to go bad. I felt worse. I am never sick, but I felt like I had a fever.
As the day went on, I became more ill. You hear in the news about the symptoms and what to do—stay home. So I isolated myself from my family because I knew something was wrong. The next two or three days, I had a strong fever. I went to see a doctor. He advised me to stay at home and drink liquids. They didn’t know what was going on.
By Sunday, I had shortness of breath. I thought I was going to die just walking to the bathroom. I was so tired. The next day, I went to Mount Sinai hospital. They brought me to the ward in a wheelchair—they told me not to walk because my oxygen levels were so low. I didn’t know what that meant. The doctors immediately performed the COVID test. Ten hours later the results came back positive. I developed pneumonia because the virus was attacking my lungs.
I couldn’t breathe. I was in the hospital another week, fighting the virus. The doctors told me, “I don’t think there is much we can do.” They told me the next step was the ventilator. I said “I don’t care anymore, put me on it.” I felt like I was going to die at any moment. I’ve never smoked. I was on the ventilator for nine days, in a coma. When you’re like this, that’s when you realize all your wrongs and all your rights, and that nobody is perfect. I thought “What a stupid person I was—I might die and I didn’t accomplish anything. What is your family going to do without you?” There was no restaurant anymore, and I was in the hospital.
My landlords were looking for me to pay the rent. They couldn’t find me because I was in a hospital bed. My employees thought I was hiding to avoid paying payroll. But I was in the hospital. They didn’t know I was there. Nobody knew. When I finally texted my manager where I was, they finally understood. I apologized and everyone got paid.
When you get off a ventilator and out of a coma, you are in bad shape. I didn’t eat for three weeks. I was super slim, and I was a heavy person before going into the hospital. My hair and nails were long. I was crying every day—I was feeling very sensitive. There are studies showing that after you recover from coronavirus, there are panic attacks, waking up in the middle of the night fearing it will happen again. When you leave the hospital, they don’t give you instructions on what to do because they don’t know either.
After two weeks in mid-May, I had to go back to the hospital because the chest pain from the panic attacks was so intense. They performed X-rays and a stress test. I lost 20 to 25 percent of my lung capacity. The doctors told me to relax, that’s why I was in pain, and only time will tell me what will happen. But that could be three months, six months, to a year. The hospital bill was large, almost $40,000. My insurance didn’t cover it. I applied for emergency Medicaid. I received it, so now I have to pay $10,000. I pay $1,000 a month for my battle with coronavirus.
My brother Ricardo, who lived in Puebla where I am from, was worried for me, calling every single day. I said, “Hey, be careful, this virus is serious.” He was already compromised from a car accident eight years ago. He had been in a coma due to the car accident and recovered. He told me, “Victor, if I have COVID, I don’t think I am going to make it.”
He was so careful. He sanitized the house every day. I called him one day and he said, “I think I have COVID.” Mexico is not like the United States. The hospitals are overwhelmed. They don’t say it in the news, but Mexico is in very bad shape. They don’t even count the number of cases or deaths. Many died in my city of Puebla. One private doctor took care of my brother. I said to my family in Mexico, “We will pay whatever it costs.”
I was paying $350 a day, which in Mexico is a lot of money. When they told me my brother needed a ventilator, they quoted me $1,000 a day. Then they decided to bring him to the hospital. He was on a ventilator for five days. And he didn’t make it. And I couldn’t be there with him because I was not allowed to travel to Mexico from the United States.
He died August 4, 2020. He was fighting for three weeks. We were two brothers and a sister.
What keeps me strong is my family—they need me. My youngest son is 11 years old. Thank God I am alive for him.
During May, before my brother had died but after I got out of the hospital and lost La Pulperia, I got a call from my soon-to-be new partner, Chef Rodrigo Abrajan. He wanted me to work with him at his restaurant. But I had no desire to do anything at the time. I wasn’t thinking about going back to work.
But this would be my future restaurant, El Paso. I was a good customer at Abrajan’s place. I nicknamed him the King of East Harlem. He started pushing a taco truck at 103rd Street and 3rd Avenue. There is a little hill that goes to Lexington Avenue, and I remember seeing him push the cart up the hill. That was 25 years ago, and he has made it big since then.
Now it’s early June. Chef Abrajan called me again and said “Victor, I have a place. The rent is good, and I need someone like you.” When Abrajan called me again, I now thought, “This is perfect.” It was close to where I lived. The food clearly wasn’t the problem—the problem was the service. The restaurant industry is la guerra—you are in the field, and you must talk to every customer.
And I needed a job. I thought I was done with New York City. I had been thinking about moving to Miami or Ohio where I had some friends. I had a couple offers in Miami—but then again I would have to go work for someone else, which I don’t necessarily mind.
I felt excited again. Mexican cuisine is not just tacos, and I wanted to show that. We branded the restaurant. My job was to tailor everything, to create an identity. We named the restaurant “El Paso” to reflect the immigrants that came illegally to the United States who took “the step” to cross the border from Mexico to Texas.
We reopened El Paso on August 1, 2020. From August 1st to today, I broke the record for sales compared to the same time last year. And we’re in the middle of a pandemic. I achieved this. I can not do anything else but restaurants.
I was working at El Paso when I got the call from Puebla that my brother died. I realized that life is difficult to understand. I was back working, now a partner of a successful brand, feeling alive again, yet my brother was no longer.
Recovering from coronavirus, losing my restaurant, and losing my brother—it’s going to be tougher than I thought. If there is something that gives me comfort, it is my children and knowing that I fought for my brother. El destino took him away. When I got sick, it put my life in balance. Why was I working so much to lose money? Why didn’t I use my time better?
I am an immigrant. When we try to come into this beautiful, amazing country, we think to ourselves, “If I am in the land of opportunities, I will try to do the best I can. Not only in business, but in life.” Success is different for everyone. It is something you do for your kids that you didn’t have growing up. And I didn’t have a lot growing up.
Despite the pandemic, I still think we are in the best country in the world to face these scenarios. Some people take that for granted. We are not suffering from hunger—you can stand in a line for two or three hours and someone will give you food. This doesn’t happen in Latin America. The president of Mexico said that the government wasn’t going to help anyone or any business. They don’t have the funds to do it anyway. But here in America there is the PPP and loan money. There is so much money here that businesses that don’t even need it take it. Being in this country is not as bad, regardless of who controls the government.
Physically, I am getting my strength back and gaining weight. I am getting mentally stronger. Part of the recovery is focusing on my health because a lot of people depend on my health. I try to be more conscious about my food and diet. I have to be on my feet all day—now I can work long hours and not get tired. I sleep better. I find time to be with my kids and wife.
Mentally, I am okay. I try not to think negatively. In the case of my brother, God has a reason why He took him. My sister told me, “I know we lost our brother, I know you were very sick, but God made sure you are here. Because we need you here. He let you stay here for us.”
It is sweet and bitter. I feel alive again—I am back working now at El Paso, but also, I cannot let La Pulperia die. It is like my son. I cannot have another death in the family. The virus already took my brother. I can’t let it take my restaurant.