Barbara “Sky” Burrell Founder, Sky’s Gourmet Tacos Barbara Jean “Sky” Burrell was born to a modest and musically talented family in Chicago, Illinois. Her father was a professional Jazz Musician, and her mother an avid cook. Barbara’s first job was as a cashier at Kroger’s Market, where she was the very first African American ever hired by the chain. She attended Michigan State University, eventually earning a Master’s Degree in Strategic Business Management. During this time, she also began training as a cook in the many area restaurants, trading hard work for lessons.
There she was exposed to the many culinary traditions of what then felt like far-flung cultures, including Polish, Italian and Mexican cuisines. Along with her extensive experience of Southern cooking from her own upbringing, she enjoyed experimenting by combining divergent ingredients and taste profiles, later to be called “Fusion”, a word Barbara refused to ever use herself. “It just sounds too trendy – and way too simple!”. Following her studies, Barbara moved to Los Angeles in 1975 and began to work as a facility manager for several companies, including the United Way, assisting in the implementation and management of housing facilities. During her tenure she oversaw a budget of over 28 million dollars and managed a staff of 200. She was also a member of the board for The Watts Labor Action Committee (WLAC) and worked extensively in her community.
Later she became a consultant for McDonalds and was part of the team that introduced their first “Drive-through”, which later became a main-stay of the chain. After 10 years of senior asset management, Barbara decided to turn her eye to her favorite subject – food. She had, of course, never stopped cooking but it wasn’t until she began to consider that the simple taco – full of possibilities – could be a vehicle for her next chapter as a restaurateur. She melded together her favorite flavor profiles, using the best quality ingredients she could find, to create unique and delicious variations. In a small storefront in the Mid-city area of Los Angeles, she took her savings and opened “Sky’s Gourmet Tacos” on March 5th, 1992. Her twist on the favorite was almost an overnight success, although she doesn’t remember it that way. “People came in for a taco and had to discover that it was pretty different than what they expected, but they certainly came back!”
Her Lobster Taco was especially shocking, but the one that she says threw her “over the top” was the Shrimp Taco, inspired by her southern influences. The new sub-moniker for the business was soon “Mexican, with a Splash of Soul”. From there she added Crawfish, Filet Mignon, and Shitake Mushroom – along with a full menu from Burritos to Hamburgers, to serve the diverse community. A few months later, she added an extensive Vegan and Vegetarian menu, years before it became the norm. It wasn’t long before Barbara opened a catering division, “Sky’s Gourmet Catering” and began hosting parties, weddings, recording sessions and award events with inventive and approachable food and service.
Her company became an approved vendor for many city-controlled entities, schools and corporations including USC, City of Los Angeles, City of Commerce, Laces, and Paramount Pictures. Her celebrity clients are numerous and include many well-known Jazz and popular musicians including Usher and Stevie Wonder. In 2017 Barbara opened “Sky’s Gourmet Market Place” in the prestigious Marina City Club in Marina del Rey, California.
The Market not only sells a refined original menu, but it also serves as a full Deli and grocery store for the community of residents, boat owners and neighboring hotels. Additionally, in April of 2018, Sky’s Original location moved to a larger property just down the street, still on the original Pico Blvd. Sky now takes reservations and has full table service. Sky’s has enjoyed numerous accolades including 2019’s Top Fifteen Black Owned Businesses in America by Travel Noire Magazine, 2018’s “Trailblazer” Award by the National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO), 2015 “Best Business of the Year” by The National Black Enterprise Group, and numerous awards for civic service and volunteerism. In 2017 Barbara was presented with a plaque by Los Angeles City Council President Herb Wesson and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti on the 25th anniversary of the original restaurant on Pico Blvd.
Now, Sky’s is ready to expand with its new delivery and take-out location to serve DTLA and beyond. SKY’s DTLA will offer guest favorites, plus a substantial vegetarian menu, and of course Barbara’s signature cheesecakes. Poised for growth, Barbara has assembled a team that is ready to introduce Sky’s to new communities, and bring her legendary
Sassy Sauce into homes nationwide as part of a collection of sauces and seasoning available through Amazon and Whole Foods. As the Sky’s family continues to grow, Barbara hopes to bring her unique style and taste to all of Southern California. As she puts it, “I was born to a tradition of good food, and food is the one thing that all people, no matter who they are, can share. It’s ingrained in me. Life taught me the rest.”
Thank you to professional photographer Marlin Salazar for donating your time and talent providing the photos for this business.