Former WKU students introduce a new restaurant style to Bowling Green

Daymani Alacron serves customers at Que Buenos Mexican restaurant in Bowling Green Tuesday. The family restaurant, operated by brothers Rafael and Felipe Ortiz, serves fast and inexpensive Mexican food, such as tacos and burritos.

Lindsay Whittington

Behind the glass-walled counter at the front of his restaurant, Rafael Ortiz, one of the owners of Que Buenos, pulled together the sides of a thick, Tex-Mex style burrito filled with beef, lettuce, jalapeños and sour cream.

“Nobody rolls a good burrito on the first try,” Rafael Ortiz said as pieces of taco meat fell out the sides of the burrito and onto a red tray holding the meal. “The real secret is folding the corners in at the right time.”

In the four months since they opened their business, former WKU students Rafael and Felipe Ortiz have had plenty of opportunity to practice.

Restaurants, Rafael Ortiz said, run in the family.

The brothers were born two years apart in Degollado, Mexico. Elder brother Rafael Ortiz, 25, only lived in Mexico for three years before his father, Felipe Ortiz Sr., moved the family to the U.S. in 1993 in search of a better life.

He found that better life in the restaurant business. 

After a brief time working in the grape fields of California and learning how to cook in a Mexican restaurant in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, Felipe Ortiz Sr. opened his first restaurant in Somerset in 1995. Now he owns several restaurants in Kentucky and surrounding states.

Rafael and Felipe Ortiz worked in their father’s restaurants part time throughout high school. It was during this time that they began to dream about going into business together to own their own family-style, sit-down Mexican restaurant.

But before they could start a business, it was important to their family that they go to college.

They both enrolled at WKU and moved to Bowling Green to study business. For a while, they also worked at a restaurant their dad owned in town before it closed.

The reason it closed, Felipe Ortiz said, was because there were already too many sit-down restaurants similar to it. It was at this point that the family began to see an emerging opportunity.

“We got to thinking about it, and when we came to Bowling Green, we realized that this market was absolutely saturated with sit-down-and-eat Mexican restaurants,” Rafael Ortiz said. “We knew that we had to come up with something different, something that was different than what Bowling Green had seen before.”

On a trip to California, the duo were introduced to a fast-casual style of a Mexican restaurant and realized Bowling Green lacked this type of eatery. Therefore, the brothers decided to bring the concept back to Kentucky; one change they made was adding a drive-thru.

To make their dream a reality, the duo needed two things: a building and their dad’s approval.

After a building that had formerly hosted a Wendy’s went up for sale in late 2014 not far from the brothers’ home, they saw their opportunity and talked to Felipe Ortiz Sr.

To put in the work and time to make their business successful, the pair would need to drop out of school. They also needed their dad’s help to pay startup costs.

At first, their dad said no. After their uncle, the brothers were going to be the first people in their family to graduate from college. It was important to him that they stay.

A compromise was in order.

In return for the money and help they needed to start their restaurant, Rafael and Felipe Ortiz had to promise they would return to school. They agreed.

Now, almost a year later, they are the proud owners of Que Buenos.

At a table in the restaurant’s back corner, John and Berna Taylor, a retired Bowling Green couple, sat and talked over their order of nachos and a steak quesadilla.

“You know how the food is usually mashed?” Berna Taylor prompted, excitedly reaching over to grab her husband’s quesadilla and pulling it apart to reveal a perfectly intact interior. “Look!”

The only thing that would make the restaurant better, Berna Taylor said, would be a beer.

It’s something the brothers are already working on. Rafael and Felipe Ortiz are in the process of acquiring their liquor license and are hoping to be able to serve alcohol soon.

Felipe Ortiz also talked about how he and his brother were working over 60 hours a week to run and maintain their business when it first started.

“When you see successful people, they’re not just successful, you know, out of nowhere,” Felipe Ortiz said. “I definitely know that for a fact.”

But now that they’ve got their business running and have settled into a routine, they don’t have to work quite as much as before.

The brothers switch off shifts throughout the day until they believe their business has steadied enough for the duo to go back to school.

“I want to have a degree,” Rafael Ortiz said. “I want people to be like, ‘Oh, you know, he went to college; he’s a minority; he’s achieving the American dream by working hard as well as studying hard.’”