Chef News

Updated: Unpaid Federal Employees Enjoying Free Meals at Barrio Cafe

“There’s no restrictions, come in pick something off the menu,” Chef Silvana Salcido Esparza says.
“There’s no restrictions, come in pick something off the menu,” Chef Silvana Salcido Esparza says. Evie Carpenter
This article was updated on Thursday, January 17.

Chef Silvana Salcido Esparza recently returned from a trip home to Mexico, during which she spent four hours at the United States border. She spoke with a government employee who says he loves his job — if only he were getting paid for it. This inspired Salcido Esparza to act using her own restaurant, Barrio Cafe on 16th Street, starting on day 26 of the partial government shutdown. They’re now giving away free meals to federal workers.

Starting at 11 a.m. on Wednesday, January 16, unpaid federal employers are invited to Barrio Cafe on 16th Street to order an entree and nonalcoholic beverage. All guests have to do is show their $0 net government pay stub and a matching form of identification. “There’s no restrictions; come in pick something off the menu,” Salcido Esparza says. “It’s not two tacos.” The free meal can include entrees like the Torta del Barrio, the Pollo en Mole, the Suizas, “even our steak — I don’t care.” Dessert is also on the house.

click to enlarge “There’s no restrictions; come in pick something off the menu,” Chef Silvana Salcido Esparza says. - MELISSA CAMPANA
“There’s no restrictions; come in pick something off the menu,” Chef Silvana Salcido Esparza says.
Melissa Campana
“No questions asked,” Salcido Esparza says. “We don’t care how much you make, just that you're not making anything right now.”

Salcido Esparza says she is not only a concerned citizen but a concerned business owner. Not only is she supporting those affected by the shutdown, but down the road, she says, people will remember this. “I got paid on Friday, I got to pay my bills,” she says, “but people aren't getting paid.” She says she knows what it’s like to live paycheck to paycheck, and a free meal might just be what some people need.

The best thing to do for your neighbor for your neighbor is share your goods,” she says. “I think it’s important that we support each other.”

Salcido Esparza says she wants to show love to the community that loves her back, so the free meals will continue as long as the shutdown does, or at least, “until I go broke.”
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Salcido Esparza says it’s been going great.

She’s seen some tables fill up with unpaid federal employees — a group from the Department of the Interior at one, another department at the next. “And we had an FBI agent just blissing out over a mango salad,” she says.

And they all have different stories. “I’m making it my job to go talk to them,” she says, having heard about some without money to put gas in the car or pay for lunch. “It’s making my commitment to this deeper, and letting me know that I'm doing the right thing.”

Despite the heaviness of the situation, Salcido Esparza says she’s having the time of her life. “We’re all kicking in; we’re not going to let them suffer alone,” she says, “It shows the resilience of us as a community.”

And Salcido Esparza also sees another possibility. “You know, I’m Mexican,” she starts, “If we run out of the expensive stuff, I’ll put on a pot of beans. We’ll feed you.” She says this is an opportunity for her to showcase not only authentic Mexican food, but also a culture of hospitality and supporting one another.

“You know, I read that 78 percent of the American people live paycheck to paycheck,” she says, “and I’m one of them.” But always with the positive spin, “but we take care of each other.”
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Lauren Cusimano is Phoenix New Times' food and drink editor. She is a journalist and food waste writer based in Tempe. Joys include eating wings, riding bikes, knowing everyone at the bar, talking too much about The Simpsons, and falling asleep while reading.
Contact: Lauren Cusimano