Grainolia’s Journey, One Step at A Time

The snow falls in thick sheets from a grey sky. Cars rip through slush along Dodge Street while steam leaks from blanketed apartments. Through the snowstorm, a person treads through rising embankments.

Obed Sanchez-Liborio is no stranger to walking. He’s marched miles to work as a busboy, carried wedding cakes through scorching heat and endured pummeling midwestern snowstorms. Just add them up to the struggles that both make up his story, and give him a reason to tell it.

It’s a story that traces back through becoming a self-taught baker, perpetually draining his meager bank account to keep cooking and opening and closing a restaurant. Back in high school he got suspended for selling cookies and skipped class for extra time in the ceramics studio. 

But in a way it all comes back to the methodical, meditative act of walking.

Growing up he always wondered why his mother’s feet looked so worn. The 25-year-old now understands—he started to suffer the same blisters and bleeding that his mom got crossing the desert to leave Mexico. 

Obed Sanchez-Liborio’s family immigrated from Acapulco, Gurrero, Mexico (left) to Omaha, Nebraska (right). Both photos courtesy of Unsplash.

Now Sanchez-Liborio understands how these small steps brought him to where he is today—a growing force in Omaha’s culinary scene who makes food unlike anything you can have in the city’s best restaurants. You can try it at Bad Seed Coffee & Supply as well as a new pop-up at The Switch in Blackstone, running until Aug. 15.

What makes those recipes special can’t be listed on an ingredient list. Much like Sanchez-Liborio can’t be defined in a neat list of words. They’re complicated, informed by struggle, but above all, create something beautiful.

“That’s what people taste,” Sanchez-Liborio said. “They taste trauma, they taste joy, they taste the person that you are if you cook with integrity.”

‘Wild Child’

Sanchez-Liborio’s parents immigrated from Acapulco, a coastal city along Mexico’s southern Pacific Coast where Sanchez-Liborio was born. When he was two he immigrated as an undocumented child. They eventually moved to a home in North Omaha where he and his younger brother Brandon, born in the United States, grew up.

Sanchez-Liborio said his family came to the United States with little, maybe $20 and a backpack. One day as a toddler, a cousin came back from school with markers. HIs parents weren’t able to afford a set of Crayolas and Sanchez-Liborio found himself fascinated by the colors and started drawing. When his cousin took the markers back the next day, Sanchez-Liborio had a one-track mind.

“I was like, I can’t wait till he comes home so I can just start using markers again,” he said. “And that was really my first encounter [with art] and I just knew that I wanted to be an artist. Before I even started school.”

Obed Sanchez-Liborio knew from an early age he wanted to be an artist. Photo by Chris Bowling.

Sanchez-Liborio was held back a grade as he learned English and eventually went to Omaha South High School in 2011, a technology and arts magnet school. In a portfolio in his room, Sanchez-Liborio keeps watercolor landscapes, self portraits and abstract pieces he made there. He also started sculpting clay. He got “F” grades in that class, he said, because, as it turned out, Sanchez-Liborio was not good at school.

“I think that he had a reputation at the time which he has absolutely grown out of,” remembered his junior year English teacher Sarah Hike. “But I think that the reputation of the time overshadowed his ability in all senses.”

“He was a wild child,” she said later.

Sanchez-Liborio would call out teachers in class if he thought they were doing something wrong or didn’t treat kids well. But for teachers he liked, Sanchez-Liborio was warm and thoughtful.

The first day Randi Nanfito substitute taught one of Sanchez-Liborio’s English classes, the high schooler oozed charm.

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“He was really a cute little guy,” she remembered. “Are you ready for what his opening line was? ‘You’re really cool, you wear skinny jeans.’”

He even got requests to draw pictures of teachers’ pets like Nanfito’s yorkies. Hike walked by as he sketched a cat and it nearly brought her to tears.

The art was good enough to sell, but not enough to make as much as the jobs his friends had.

“I need a job. I need a car. I need all these things. And I’m not going to get that from ceramics. And I can’t go out and get a job because I don’t have a social security number. So I was like, you know what, I’m teaching myself how to make cookies.”

He started with a small stand mixer and a bowl to make 100 cookies every day to sell at South High. Eventually he had money to buy a spatula and another mixer. His mom taught him to make banana bread. A counselor gave him a huge bag of chocolate chips. He watched episodes of The Great British Bake Off to get inspiration.

When the operation got too big, administration suspended him, Sanchez-Liborio said. That punishment wasn’t new for Sanchez-Liborio, but penalizing him for trying to start a business really upset him. Hike remembers Sanchez-Liborio walking around school with a milk jug, begging for change because while the student code of conduct forbade selling bags of cookies, it didn’t say anything about panhandling.

“Whether he needed the money or not I don’t know,” Hike said. “But it was to push the limits and push boundaries.”

Eventually the suspensions piled up. Despite encouragement from teachers like Hike and Nanfito, he dropped out. Art school, as well as the money to pay for it, didn’t seem obtainable. But if he couldn’t be an artist outright, he’d use the tools he had to will it into existence.

“I was born to be an artist,” Sanchez-Liborio said. “I only cook because that’s how we deal with systemic racism, really, with the way that the system is set up. If my family didn’t have money to put us through art school and buy us art materials, then we’d just have to figure it out.”

Halfway Between Two Worlds: Grainolia

After high school, a friend asked Sanchez if he wanted to sell his baked goods at the Omaha Farmer’s Market in the Old Market. Sanchez-Liborio didn’t even know what a farmer’s market was, but soon he was selling baked goods that had grown from cookies to guava cheesecakes, Brazilian cheese breads, French Madeleines, Salvadoran quesadillas and more. He baked it all out of his parents kitchen with a few mixers and a standard home oven. And when he wasn’t hawking goods at the farmer’s market, he’d set up tables in front of schools and abandoned homes to draw business.

Meanwhile he walked back and forth to restaurants like PF Changs near Westroads Mall and Plank in the Old Market to work as a busboy, jobs he was able to get after the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals was passed while he was in high school.

“I’m glad I did all of this when I was young because it was so much work,” he said. “Working out of a home oven, family refrigerator and mixer. And just putting out hundreds of baked goods out of my parents’ kitchen.”

Obed Sanchez-Liborio. Photo by Chris Bowling.

Balancing all his jobs meant Sanchez-Liborio was baking often through the night. Eventually he made enough money to buy a commercial stand mixer. Then another. Then he bought a car to transport everything—an old, beat up Toyota Ranger that someone had sheared the top off to make it into a convertible. 

The business took another big step when someone asked if he could bake a wedding cake.

“I had never made a wedding cake,” Sanchez-Liborio said, “but I was like, ‘You know what? A hustler never says no, and a baker does not say they can’t bake a cake.’”

He went on YouTube to watch people make frosting and construct flowers made of sugar. Soon he was getting requests and taking out full page ads in the popular matrimony lookbook Nebraska Wedding Day.

In 2016, he competed in a competition hosted by Kitchen Council, a group dedicated to supporting rising food entrepreneurs. Sanchez-Liborio stayed up for two days straight making his farmer’s market mainstays which won over the competition’s three judges and earned him the $1,000 top prize.

Success came quickly, but it didn’t surprise many who knew him.

“It’s just validation for what he is able to do, what he can do and what he’s going to do for himself,” Hike said. “He’s a fighter, and the fact that he was catching the bus, taking long walks to work, he was doing all those things, but it was in the name of fighting for himself.”

Doing things on his own term is even reflected in the name he gave for his business:

Grainolia.

It’s a made up word, halfway between English and Spanish, and seems to resonate perfectly with Sanchez-Liborio’s vision.

“People just know that I make cakes and make ceramics. But they don’t know why I do it…why school went the way it did, why all these jobs went the way they did. We literally live in this fucked up system of racism and oppression. And I’ve never been the type to take it, even when I was a kid. So after working at all these places, I decided I was going to open up my own place to stick up for how I believe people are supposed to be treated and how a restaurant can work. And you know, really remake the whole culture of food.”

The House That Mole Built

The table setting at Grainolia including handmade bowls, plates and menus from Obed Sanchez-Liborio. Photo by Chris Bowling.

Lynsey Sastamoine met Sanchez-Liborio in 2018 at California Bar and immediately drew her in with his infectious smile and gregarious personality.

“He was cracking me up,” Sastamoine said. “He’s so funny. He was quoting Rhianna…He always loves to be watched.”

Over nights of shots and beers, Sanchez-Liborio opened up about his desire to run a restaurant.

His parents had finally kicked him out of their kitchen (“it just needed to happen,” Sanchez-Liborio said). He rented commercial spots, but those were expensive. He worked out of local businesses’ kitchens but always felt they tried to exploit his labor for profit. 

At the same time he’d also let his DACA status lapse and had to apply twice, spending more than $1,000 in total while waiting months to see if it would be renewed.

“I thought that [deportation] was a high possibility,” Sanchez-Liborio said. “So I’m just trying to go about my life and act like this whole thing isn’t going on and just trying to figure stuff out by myself.”

Sanchez-Liborio had never been one to ask for help. As a kid he was too ashamed to ask his parents for money, knowing how hard they worked and what they’d sacrificed. But one night Maria Corpuz had Sanchez-Liborio on her talk show “Nite Caps.” “I was hella emotional at that time,” Sanchez-Liborio said. “That’s when Omaha kind of started finding out about what I was going through.”

To his surprise they supported him. It gave him more confidence that maybe he could open a restaurant. Sastamoine, who’s spent years professionally cooking and waitressing, told Sanchez-Liborio she’d help him.

The only question: where would it be?

While it’s common to see bands play house shows and artists host galleries in do-it-yourself studios, it’s not common, or legal for that matter, to have a restaurant in your home. But that’s exactly what Sanchez-Liborio did in his Gifford Park rented house. And like so many things in Sanchez-Liborio’s life, he took scarce resources and built something beautiful.

He sat down again at the pottery wheel to make the textured clay plates. He found some light-colored wood chairs at the thrift store. A friend made the table tops. Iridescent silverware came from Walmart. All the glassware was donated by a neighbor. 

A sunroom to the left of his entry way was set up to host pre-dinner music, conversation and cocktails. To cook, they crammed into his home’s small kitchen along with a commercial oven. It had a sink for their dishwasher and extra set of hands, Conner Runyon, that seemed too small to fit the hotel pans, bowls, plates and glasses that get dirty during service. And Sanchez-Liborio had exacting standards.

“The blinds had to be open a certain length because of the way the sun hit inside the restaurant,” Sastamoine said. “It had to be open like a third way in and that was like, like those little mini details. That was like a thing every day.”

The water had to be chilled the night before. The tables had to be arranged across the cheap tile floor just so. Sanchez-Liborio practiced calligraphy in a journal so that each handmade menu looked just right.

To put it succinctly, it didn’t just feel like a real restaurant, it felt more exciting than any other restaurant in Omaha.

In the fall of 2019, friends, fans of Grainolia and curious Omahans parked on the Gifford Park residential street, squeezed through Sanchez-Liborio’s narrow entryway and immediately smelled Sanchez-Liborio and Sastamoine cooking rich mole or frying plantains while roommates upstairs were just waking up.

Some of the plates also came garnished with Uña de Gato, the cat’s claw, a woody herb that grows in central America. Sanchez-Liborio’s grandmother, the one who cared for him while his parents crossed the desert to the United States and whom he’s never met as he’s never been able to go back to Mexico, sent him the herb to propagate. Guests could see it grow wild around his home as they chatted and sipped sweet Agua de Jamaica.

“It’s healing in the sense that it’s so communal,” Corpuz said. “You come in for an experience and then you sit down at the table and talk to the people next to you. Because you’re all experiencing the same thing. It does more than feed people. It feeds people communally.”

Back in the kitchen, the feeling was pure euphoria.Every night felt like a production that always ended with rave reviews by curtain call. It felt like everything had finally come together.

“He was dancing in the kitchen,” Sastamoine said. “Literally jumping up and down.”

Questions, Answers

At the same time Sanchez-Liborio started his restaurant, a new virus from China was starting to make headlines. In a few months COVID-19 shut down the world as well as Grainolia’s restaurant.

Unable to work, he was at the mercy of unemployment programs and stimulus checks, all of which went directly toward mounting rent and utility bills. Then in 2021, his landlord told him he’d be selling the home.

Just as quickly as everything materialized, it seemed to have vanished. But in all that chaos, something else happened.

Silence.

Suddenly there were no hustles to chase. No future to plan for. For the first time, maybe in his life, Sanchez-Liborio had to ask himself a tough question.

“Why am I doing this?”

Why was life so hard for him and his parents, for all people with brown skin and coarse black hair? Why couldn’t he have gotten a job at 17? Why couldn’t he have been an artist? Why did his feet bleed and blister so he could work?

He looked into the mirror while indigenous Mexican music played. He stared at his hair, an inheritance from his Afro-Mexican bloodline. As protests against racial injustice started to rock the nation in the summer of 2020, it took new meaning. He grew his hair out into wild black curls. He thought about the stories hair tells. Of ancestors. Of oppression and resilience through centuries.

“My entire life I’ve been embarrassed of who I am,” Sanchez-Liborio wrote in his journal one night cooking in the kitchen. “But this year, I learned that I am a beautiful energy. I had a beautiful upbringing, and I was taught to love instead of hate.”

Obed Sanchez-Liborio spent a lot of time during the pandemic asking himself, “Why am I doing this?” Photo by Chris Bowling.

Sanchez-Liborio found joy, not just in self love and realization, but in the people around him. He went camping and traveled for the first time. He felt free.

In late June 2021, Sanchez-Liborio had a final send off for his home and restaurant in Gifford Park. Dozens came out to sample a buffet of Brazilian cheese breads, Salvadoran quesadillas, ceviche as well as a table of fruits, meats and cheese scattered across a flowing white bed sheet. Sanchez-Liborio had wanted to host one last formal dinner, but the landlord was kicking him out sooner than he’d promised. So he made it work, including scraping together $1,300 to turn the lights back on since he was behind on utility bills.

“You have to do whatever it takes to survive,” his friend DoseLina Estevez said at the party.

She’s a first-generation American of Columbian and Lebanese descent. She’s seen how people like Sanchez-Liborio and her parents have to fight twice as hard for their place in a state like Nebraska. But they’re resilient. Sanchez-Liborio exemplifies that, all the way down to teaching himself how to cook.

“It’s just culture,” Estevez said. “It’s just something you learn. Nobody ever taught me to cook, nobody ever taught my brother to cook, but it’s just part of your culture. It’s how you express yourself. Especially coming from poverty and genocide and diaspora.”

That resonates especially with Sanchez-Liborio’s brother Brandon. Nobody taught either of them how to paint, draw, sculpt, cook or make music, Brandon’s creative pursuit, but it’s in their blood. They didn’t know until recently but their ancestors used to sell food and art in small Mexican villages.

And that culture is something to be proud of. Watching how his brother’s story connected with so many people at Grainolia’s restaurant sendoff sent a message.

“I always thought to myself, I gotta be there for my family,” Brandon said. “And sometimes there’s been times where I feel like, nobody’s gonna be there for you. But then seeing this, I guess that inspires me to make sure that I’m always doing something for somebody else.”

‘This is Our Chance’

Every day feels like a blessing and chance to prove himself to Obed Sanchez-Liborio. Photo by Chris Bowling.

The humid air hangs like a wet blanket in early August Omaha. While most race for air conditioning, Obed Sanchez-Liborio still walks everywhere he goes.

Before his at-home restaurant had closed down, Sanchez-Liborio had started baking at Bad Seed Coffee & Supply on Harney Street. He’s also breaking out the calligraphy pen to write menus for a pop-up kitchen at The Switch in Blackstone. It’s not the intimate setting of his home—loud music blares of the food court’s neo-minimalist white walls as people get everything from coffee to fried chicken—but Sanchez-Liborio has never been one to step away from a challenge.

“We’ve waulked [sic] for a million miles for this,” one of his Instagram stories reads as he traces Spanish in black calligraphy. “Till our feet bleed.”

In another he showed a shattered blender on the kitchen floor. He was going to be up all night cooking.

“I’m going to show u how hard we [have] had to work our entire life just to survive,” he wrote. “This is nothing new to us. And through this food you taste our strength. This is our chance. And when our blood is inspired and starts to boil, we are ready to cook our hearts out. And do it with love.”

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