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Exploring the Heartbeat of Barrio BX: A Conversation with Co-Founder Tony Martinez

Michael Carusillo | 28 May, 2024

            Exploring the Heartbeat of Barrio BX: A Conversation with Co-Founder Tony Martinez

On one of Barrio BX’s iconic monthly Bomba nights, we met up with co-founder Tony Martinez to talk about the restaurant’s holistic dining experience, his historical standings with the city’s Puerto Rican Day Parade, and how bridging the two connects the past and future of the Puerto Rican community in NYC. With his popular hip-hop magazine,Stress, having a float in the parade from 1997-2005, Martinez was one of the first in the business to promote Reggaeton music to New York City in the early 2000s. Martinez is back and ready to celebrate with the community for the second year in a row on the Barrio BX float. Read more to find out how Martinez and his business partner, Ruben Rodriguez, have incorporated cultural programming into the ethos of Barrio BX since opening in 2020.

His responses have been edited for length and clarity. Check out the short video clip from the interview on Instagram and TikTok by clicking the hyperlinks.

Purchase the only print signed by the owner to support a worthy cause. 100% of the proceeds of the signed print benefit the National Puerto Rican Day Parade Scholarship Fund.

How did you meet your business partner and what prompted you to open up a restaurant?

MartinezMy business partner, Ruben Rodriguez, and I have known each other for close to 30 years. We met in college. I went to Syracuse University and he went to Cornell. This is our first business venture together, although we've supported each other in every capacity – morally, financially, and with resources for the last 30 years. 

He always knew that my dream was to open up a restaurant and he was already a successful operator. So when this opportunity came about I had to jump on it.

When you were opening Barrio BX, what were your intentions regarding service to the Puerto Rican community and locals?

MartinezPrior to Barrio BX, Ruben owned this location and it was a Mexican restaurant called Cabo. When he parted ways with his previous partners, he said, “Tony, I want to change the concept and I want to make a Puerto Rican restaurant. Let's partner up and do it.” We both were in agreement that it couldn't just be a Puerto Rican place. It had to reflect our upbringing and our experiences growing up in New York – that made it a bit more unique, as opposed to a Puerto Rican spot that only served great food. 

We needed to become more of a hub for the community.

What other unique dining experiences does it offer that set it apart from other eateries in the area?

MartinezAlthough we are in a two-fare zone and we're not easily accessible via the train, we have become a destination spot. The main reason is because we don't just want to offer good food. We want to create a holistic dining experience where we stimulate all of your senses. 

Obviously, music for the ears – with the best DJs in New York coming up to spin where they would normally never spin in this part of the Bronx (or even anywhere in the Bronx) because of our relationships with them for the last 30 years. Food that appeals to your taste and smell. Then, the visuals are satisfied with the artwork on the walls and the lighting. And the touch, if you will, is the customer service we focus on to ensure you feel well taken care of and eager to recommend us and return again and again.

Can you share any memorable stories or instances where Barrio BX has actively engaged with the local Puerto Rican community?

MartinezOur programming is our foundation. While other places had Dart Night, Karaoke Night, or Salsa Night, we wanted to set ourselves apart. We have our spoken word open mic that we do once a month. We have our monthly Bomba Night, which is Afro-Puerto Rican music. We have a book club that we created. We are literature aficionados and we can be a platform for Puerto Rican authors, whether they're established New York Times bestsellers or up and coming. This is a place you can share with others who love books. People can wind down here; not everything is about a ‘turn up.’ 

That has set us apart from other people. They know our lane is our cultural programming. We've had financial literacy workshops here for the community. We've done fundraisers here for Mi Patria, which is a nonprofit organization that does boots on the ground work in Puerto Rico. We take advantage of being a space that the community can use to amplify messages. 

What is your history with Puerto Rican Day Parade and how does the restaurant plan to continue this involvement in the future?

MartinezIn 2023, we decided to get a float in the Puerto Rican parade. It was unheard of for a restaurant to have a float, but what we decided to do was bring the Barrio BX experience to Fifth Avenue. We had a lot of our DJs on rotation joining us. We had the visuals – the artwork that you see in the restaurant was on the float. Even some of our regulars found out and were like, “Hey, Tony, I heard you have a float in the Puerto Rican parade, can I be on it?” I would say, “Yeah, sure be on Fifth Avenue and 47th Street at noon on this day.” They were like, “Really?” Their presence lends to the experience of what you see on the float is what you're going to get at the restaurant. 

In addition to us having the float (and the same for this year, we're going to have a float that replicates that model which was successful for us), we were also hosting our monthly freestyle brunch. That was super popular, people were lined up down the block at 11 o'clock. They were watching the live stream of the parade on TV. We were calling each other and FaceTiming, so it was an engaging interaction between our customers here and the float. Immediately after we finished the route, we all came here, and it was a surreal experience for people to be like, “We just saw you on TV, oh my god,” and everybody else from the parade came. 

I was happy that last year we unofficially claimed ourselves as the Puerto Rican Parade Weekend Headquarters. Everything happening around those 72 hours was really about Barrio BX. People were calling from other places like, “You got to come over here, I don't know what you're doing over there, but come over here.” I left the restaurant at 11:30 p.m. The next day, I spoke to Ruben, my business partner, to ask how we did. He said he left at 3:30 in the morning. So, you can imagine how exciting the celebration of our culture was. We're looking forward to doing it again this year. 

Who was directing all the designs and the process of making the float?

MartinezI have experience participating in the parade, going back to 1996. We were the first ones to bring Reggaeton artists; we even introduced that genre of music to New York City in 1996. When I had a Hip Hop magazine called Stress Magazine. At that time, there were a lot of corporate companies that were involved. There was Goya, American Airlines, and Budweiser. For the local small businesses or nonprofit organizations, you generally would see them marching behind the banner, but I was determined to get us a float.

I called one of my dear friends, DJ Tony Touch to tell him I got a float in the parade. He's like, “Great, I'm gonna bring these guys up from Puerto Rico. They do this Spanish Reggae.” It wasn’t even called Reggaeton. I told him that was cool and that's when I got a chance to meet Daddy Yankee, Nicky Jam, Ivy Queen, Don Chezina, and a lot of the pioneers of the genre who rocked out with us for the next five, six years. Usually, I never get on the float, I walk beside it. I remember one year I’m walking I hear this kid in the stands, and he's like, “This is that s*** my cousins listen to in Puerto Rico.” It wasn't in New York, yet. There was no internet. It was just word of mouth and tapes. 

Then, in 2005, when I worked at News Corp, running marketing for the New York Post (Tempo), an insert magazine about Latino culture, I was able to not only secure our float, but secure the telecast rights for our sister stations. I was able to get Fat Joe to be the host of the parade. I had Daddy Yankee on our float because of our relationship from the previous years. 

Even though 2005 was the last time I was in the parade, it’s like riding a bike. I was able to just orchestrate and coordinate all of that, on behalf of Barrio BX and then worked out great for us. We wanted to let everybody know that this is who we are. This is how we do our things over here. We don't compromise who we are. 

As someone deeply connected to Puerto Rican culture, what message or sentiment do you hope the Puerto Rican Day Parade conveys to the broader community in New York City?

MartinezThe Puerto Rican parade, being one of the oldest and largest parades in New York City is a celebration of culture. You get to see people that are a true community. It's all the family, from the little kids to the grandparents, enjoying themselves and seeing the community in a positive light. 

I know that there were times in the 90s and early 2000s, when there were some incidents, but that's ten bad apples out of a million people. You can't say the entire community was like that, but that's how they try to stereotype you. Now that the parade is making a comeback after COVID, people feel the same energy and excitement that you did in the US before. I think that's only going to be bigger and better this year.

The fact that you opened during COVID and you're still in business and thriving is a testament to your success and the goodness that it's doing for the community.

MartinezIt wasn't our intention to open up during COVID. We were actually slated to open at the end of March 2020. In the middle of March is when the pandemic hit. Of course, like everyone else, I panicked because I had invested a lot of money, we all did. We were like, “What are we doing? What is this? Have you ever heard of a global pandemic? I only heard about this in the movies.” So, we took our time. The good thing is we didn't tell anyone because I don’t like to jinx things, so no one knew about us. 

When we opened, I called a lot of friends and fraternity brothers like, “Come out to my new restaurant!” They're like, “When did you open a restaurant?” I’m like, “Today.” I had 50 people here. The only thing that was a little sad for me was that it was at the time when you weren't allowed to go inside restaurants. Imagine I invite you to my restaurant, but you're not allowed inside, you can only sit outside. Thank God for the community and all of our friends and family that have really supported us. 

One of our resident artists, Viajero (Adrián Román), who's an activist and brilliant artist – I’ll always remember him telling us something when we first opened. We were having a cocktail inside and he said, “We can't let this place fail.” I always appreciated those words coming from him because I knew just how important we were going to be for the community and we don't take it for granted. We know that our guests work hard to make their money and they come in here to spend it. Whether you are celebrating a birthday, or graduation, we’ve got to make sure that you feel happy that you spent your hard earned money. 

How was your experience introducing the New York music scene to some of the top reggaeton artists of our generation, like Daddy Yankee, Nicky Jam, and Tego Calderon?  

MartinezAgain, in the 90s, it was very corporate. If you look at it from a marketing and business lens, you have a million people that are going to the parade. I'm sure that they’re happy that Maria's Hair Salon is marching, but they're there to see the celebrities and the talent. Back then, it was Marc Anthony, J.Lo, you name it – that's why it was so popular and anticipated. Then we came. We saw that Hip Hop wasn't really represented and we are Hip Hop. We're backpackers. That’s who you are, growing up in New York being Black or Puerto Rican. 

At the same time, we come from a generation that was one generation removed from the activist. The culture that we come from was born from activism, the Black Panthers, the Young Lords. Those people were still around. They were only 35-40 years old and they're still very active in the community. They were the ones taking over Lincoln Hospital and creating breakfast programs. We inherited that mindset and that's who we are. 

Usually, I never get on the float, I walk beside it. I remember one year I’m walking I hear this kid in the stands, and he's like, “This is that s*** my cousins listen to in Puerto Rico.” It wasn't in New York, yet. There was no internet. It was just word of mouth and tapes. 

I had a website that I had launched in 2000 I’m 4-5 years in the game. I’m a veteran –the king of the parade. Also, in ‘97, I had relationships with Bad Boy, Rocawear, Rockefeller, FUBU. Everybody was like, “Yo, Tone, we want a float.” So I wanted to organize it, “Listen, let's make a deal. I'm gonna bring you a lot of new companies. Just make sure I'm taken care of. Not only rate wise, but also placement wise.” Initially, I was in the parade for Stress Magazine, I was new. But the following year, that's when everybody else started to come in. We were still the only ones doing Reggaeton for a good four to five years. So going into 2000 when I had the website, I had my bright idea. We're gonna do the first webcast of the parade. 

In 2005, I ran into Daddy Yankee, who's now been my man for eight years. I see him in the Village. He has records in his hand. It’s November/December 2004. He’s like, “I got this new single,Gasolina. It’s hot.” We went into Yellow Rat Bastard and I saw a friend of mine, DJ Miss Saigon. She's DJing inside the clothing store. I'm like, “Yo, Saigon, throw on this record. This is my man's song.” She plays it, but she has more of a downtown, hipster vibe. She was like, “It's cool…” I was like, “Yo, this song is hot! This is gonna be a hit. You're gonna be on the float in June with me. Singing this sh**” He’s like “Bet. Let's do it.” 

March/April 2005, it’s the number one song in the world. I'm like, “Yo, Yank, we made a deal. You said you're gonna be on my float.” He’s like “Tone, they offered me $100 grand.” I was like, “Look, man, let's do this. I'm gonna do something for you that money can’t buy. I'll make you the Grand Marshal of the parade and I'm gonna give you the front cover of the magazine. Of course, I’ll pay for the travel and the hotel. I got you.” I go to the parade organizers, who by now love me and know who I am.” They're like, “Perfect. We'll make him the Grand Marshal of the Youth.”

Two years prior to 2005, when I started working at the Post, I kept telling the organizing committee to give me the telecast rights, but they were in contract with NBC. Fast forward to the spring of 2005, they said the contract had ended. I went to my boss at the time, the VP of Marketing at New York Post, set up some meetings, and signed the deal. Then I got my man Fat Joe to be the broadcast host on Channel 5. I share those stories to show that networking is everything and there’s ways that you can occupy the same space, but play different roles in it. 

Barrio BX is located at 3764 E. Tremont Ave, Bronx, NY 10465 and is currently open on Wednesday through Friday at 4 p.m. and closes at 11 p.m. on Wednesday, 12 a.m. on Thursday, and 2 a.m. on Friday. On weekends, they are open on Saturday from 12 p.m. to 2 a.m. and on Sunday from 12 p.m. to 10 p.m. (718) 269-3345.

Click the photo above for more information on Barrio BX's signed print for the NPRDP Scholarship Fund.