A former Bergdorf Goodman Dior makeup artist left his career to pursue his dream of opening an authentic Puerto Rican restaurant in Astoria. He has cherished the support his community has shown and now focuses on giving back.
Derick Lopez knew he wanted to open The Freakin Rican — now located at 4306 34th Ave. — since he was young. As a child, he was happiest going to a carnival with his family in the south Bronx, where he could find traditional Puerto Rican food.
“I always wanted to feel that sense of happiness and family,” Lopez said. “It’s just a feeling that comes with the customers, they’re an extension of my family, and this is why I work so hard.”
Lopez started to save up money for The Freakin Rican while working at Bergdorf Goodman. He then began selling food at street festivals with his husband, Victor Vargas.
“I started ordering the equipment and Victor was like, ‘What the hell is going on?’” said Lopez. “We were doing 60 festivals from April to October and before we knew it, a lot of people were following us. ”
After a couple of years of selling his food out of his RAV4 at street festivals, Lopez was able to quit his job as a makeup artist and open his restaurant. Not long after, Vargas quit his job as a coffee shop manager to join his husband.
Since the couple has been successfully running their restaurant, they never forget to give back the support their community showed them as they were getting their start.
Lopez said his restaurant serves as a lifeline for the community. Last week, the restaurant gave out over 100 free plates of food to the community.
“I’m really passionate about helping,” said Lopez. “You never know when it’s your turn, sometimes you’re up, but sometimes you’re down. People come here and feel like they’re home and feel like they belong. It really is a place where people come and unite.”
Lopez also didn’t hesitate to help Puerto Rico after seeing the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria two years ago, which the island is still recovering from.
“I was at home crying,” said Lopez. “I will do anything for my people. I said, ‘I have to do something, I can’t just sit here and do nothing.’”
And that’s just what Lopez did. He started a GoFundMe, matching any donations given. He then went down to Puerto Rico to cook, supply bedding and go door to door to help.
The Freakin Rican needed help themselves at the beginning of the pandemic, as did thousands of restaurants that were struggling financially.
“[In] the beginning, there was absolutely no business,” Lopez said.
The restaurant was able to get grant money from Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC NYC), a national nonprofit that invests in marginalized communities.
Valerie White, an executive director of LISC NYC, said that helping The Freakin Rican was a great way of putting money back into the community.
“The key difference between just a business and a small business is being anchored to the community,” said White. “It’s critically important for the sustainability of these underrepresented communities to have that anchor, and a lot of that comes from these small businesses.”
The Freakin Rican now serves tens of thousands of patrons weekly. Lopez said he will always help his community, support others and welcome everybody into their restaurant and family.
“Me and Victor have been married seven years, we employ gay, Black, straight — doesn’t matter where you come from,” Lopez said. “This is a place you feel at home, doesn’t matter who [or] what you classify yourself as. We’re like a big, [diverse] family.”