Louisville restaurant owner opens new location, reflects on American dream
You've likely tasted these international flavors in the Louisville restaurant scene, popular restaurants like Mussel & Burger Bar and El Taco Luchador. As the owner prepares to open its newest hot spot, here's a look back at the American dream that almost never happened.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- You've likely tasted these unique flavors in the Louisville restaurant scene, popular restaurants like Mussel & Burger Bar and El Taco Luchador. As the owner prepares to open its newest hot spot, he looks back at the American dream that almost never happened.
True Cuban, savory Mexican and out-of-the-box American. "They all kind of come together to create a complete dish," says customer, Stephen Curley.
It began with a dream. Fernando Martinez, Chef and Owner of Ole Restaurant Group, grew up in Cuba and was always in the kitchen with his mother and grandmother.
They lived near the airport. He eventually made sandwiches for illegal cab drivers.
"Everybody was trying to find a way to make a living and you have to remember, Cuba, it's a communist country. So, basically, anything outside of government is illegal," Martinez said.
Martinez went to jail.
"The taxi drivers, they knew where I lived. So, they started showing up at my house. They're like, 'man, I'm starving. What do you have in the kitchen?'" Martinez said. "Now, the tourists, they started asking the taxi drivers, 'hey where can you get the best Cuban food in Havana?' and they started bringing the tourists to my house."
Police found out again. This time, he spent a week in jail. "I'm full of dreams. I'd rather die trying to make it to United States then stay in this country and not having a future and after that, all my energy went into building that raft."
He made it 50 miles on that raft with his mom and friends. "We were picked up by the U.S. coast guard and we were taken back to Guantanamo Bay and we were in Guantanamo Bay in a refugee camp for a year."
He eventually made it to the United States and had three places to choose from. "We didn't know where Louisville, Kentucky was and we didn't like the cold weather. We picked San Diego, California."
After a year, he and his mom visited friends in Louisville. "I loved it so much that I never went back to San Diego. So, in the end, I went back to Louisville, Kentucky."
Along with his mom and one cook, he started Havana Rumba in St Matthews in 2004. Business, was slow.
"I remember waking up and having panic attacks," Martinez said. "Seven years of my life working three jobs, putting everything we had on the line, we took a second mortgage on our house, and everything wasn't going as well as we planned."
One article is all it took. "After that, we had an hour wait every night," Martinez said. "Tee people waiting would ask the people leaving, 'was it worth me waiting an hour to eat' and people would be like, 'yeah, it's worth it. So, don't go anywhere.'"
Then, they relied on word of mouth. They opened Mojito Tapas Restaurant but eventually got burned out and sold both.
"I always felt like I needed to know more. I'm always in the search, in the constant search in knowledge when it comes to the restaurant business and cooking."
They traveled and eventually returned to Louisville and opened Guaca Mole Cocina Mexicana.
Next, came two Mussel & Burger Bars, incorporating mussels to get people in the door.
Then, they opened El Taco Luchador. "I think it's probably the busiest restaurant in Louisville by square footage. I mean, it's insane how much we do out of that little business with six tables."
Artesano Vino Tapas Y Mas was next followed by homemade Italian at Mercato Italiano Trattoria & Market and southern cooking at Red Barn Kitchen.
His 200 employees often work up the ranks.
"I've always been a dreamer, but there's a difference in dreaming and doing and that's what I try to do."
Martinez isn't slowing down, opening another El Taco Luchador in St Matthews. If you're counting, that's eight restaurants.
He said the quest to learn and get noticed for being different has translated into his success. That, and a lot of sweat and tears to bring Kentuckiana customers a one-of-a-kind, international experience.
"My mom tells me you know, 'I'm really proud.' I'm really proud not only what I have done but what my family has done. I came to the states and all I have done is just work."
The second El Taco Luchador location is set to open August 24.
For more information about Martinez's restaurants, click here.
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