EAST WILLIAMSBURG— At the corner of Graham Avenue and Powers Street an empty storefront that was vacant for the past two years is now the home of Palenque: a modern, inviting coffee shop catering to the palates of Brooklynites who seek to indulge themselves with homemade Colombian food.
While Palenque opened its doors on January 20, the concept began its journey eight years ago, when owners Viviana Lewis and Luz Angela Sierra (Nena) attended the popular Renegade Craft Fair —a curated marketplace at McCarran Park which attracts more than 300,000 attendees annually where they sold Arepas and other Colombian snacks.
“It was during the weekend and it was raining a lot. Surprisingly people showed up and they liked our food. We realized we had a niche. Nena then asked if I would be interested in starting a new food venture with her,” says Lewis, recalling how Palenque began to form.
Although born in Colombia, Lewis lived her first five years in New York before returning to her native country where she worked as a successful fashion designer in the city of Medellin. Lewis first met Nena back in the 90s at a social gathering, not realizing they might become business associates in the future in a different country.
When Lewis returned to the U.S. in the early 2000s, she worked from home preparing Cuban delicacies and lunches which she sold to her friends through word of mouth.
“I would send messages in the morning to all my friends, and they would spread the word. They would come and eat in my house,” recalls Lewis. It was the passion for cooking, and her ambition to work for herself that landed her multiple gigs at food festivals and fairs.
When Lewis and Nena met again in New York in 2012, they both shared a vision to start a venture in the food industry. They started by researching the male-dominated industry of street food and ultimately resolved to buy an old food truck.
“It was very difficult because the people who had the lease would rent to others, so to get in the industry for women was very hard,” says Lewis.
No information could prepare them for the hardships of finding parking in the middle of the night at 42nd Street and having to return the truck to the commissaries— the places deemed acceptable by the health department, where trucks can prepare and refrigerate their food— after a 12-hour shift. The constant positive feedback from their customers, however, drove them to continue day after day. Eventually, they expanded to other locations, including Rockaway Park– where they were nominated for the Best of Rockaway Awards in 2019 under the restaurant category.
While the work was hard and consuming, the two friends’ persisted—they had a goal, and it manifested in the form of Palenque’s new home at 298 Graham Avenue. Obtaining the funds for the location took three years. They sought conventional loans for small businesses and received financial backing from their loyal following and friends, who donated through a Gofundme page created for the sole purpose of opening Palenque’s commercial kitchen. The owners added the name of the contributors to one of the walls in appreciation.
“It is the wall of fame,” says Juanita Alas Blancas, who has been with Palenque for more than three years and works as a barista at the new location.
Their new location serves as a factory for their homemade arepas, which they distribute nationwide, and also as a café where customers can come in, grab a bite, and work remotely using Palenque’s free wifi.
“I’ve been here two or three times before… the first time I had Ajiaco, which is something extremely hard to find. I am really glad they have it here,” says Kevin Newman, 26, as he shared a meal with his friend, Ben, during lunch.
In addition to offering the common arepas de maíz (corn), they also serve arepas made of quinoa and multi-grains. For Lewis, it was important to adapt her beloved childhood dish to the evolving culture in East Williamsburg.
“We have to cater to the demand of the place where we live, while at the same time staying true to our Colombian roots…” Lewis tells us. “When we started making arepas it was the boom of the quinoa, and it was also the boom of gluten-free— so we made sure to be able to offer those requirements.”
Finding a balance between Colombian food and bringing it to the 21st century was not a tough decision for Lewis, who, as a vegan, had begun trying different types of bases for her food. Their menu also offers homemade soups, such as ajiaco (chicken soup with corn and potato), and other Colombian snacks like almojabanas and the classic empanadas made with a multi-grain base.
“When people see Palenque — it is not your conventional Colombian place,” Lewis tells us, wishing to attract and reach everyone in the community. “No, I am from Colombia and I live in Brooklyn– [my arepas] are a mix of both.”
Catch their grand opening this Saturday at 298 Graham Avenue. For more information call (347) 614-8005 or visit their website.
Hours: Monday 8AM–5PM, Tuesday 8AM–10PM, Wednesday 8AM–10PM, Thursday 8AM–10PM, Friday 8–11AM, Saturday 11AM–11PM, Sunday 11AM–8PM