After James Windon’s career as a serial entrepreneur in the entertainment industry, he started a cleaning business.
Then the pandemic hit. And that’s when the creativity really started flowing.
Windon and his wife Johanna started Buena Papa Fry Bar in Raleigh, N.C., in 2021, basing the concept around a dish Windon invented during the pandemic: the loaded fry.
Cooking for his family during the COVID-19 lockdown, Windon learned how to make homemade French fries. One day as she was making Bandeja Paisa (a traditional Columbian dish with rice, beans and several toppings), Johanna ran out of rice to cook as the base, so Windon offered his homemade fries fresh out of the oven.
It may have sounded crazy at first, but they were desperate at the time.
“We had hungry kids looking at us. And as parents, we wanted to make it work,” Windon said.
The entrepreneurs had shut down their cleaning business during the COVID-19 pandemic, and Windon was ready for the next opportunity.
“My business mind started rolling. I was like, ‘Wait a minute. You might have a business here,’” he said.
Buena Papa is like the Chipotle of fries, Windon said, but “don't think just bacon bits, because that's not it.” Rather, it’s dishes from around the world, with fries as their base.
Once Windon had the idea for Buena Papa, he went online and started researching each country’s most famous dish.
Starting with the brand’s classic dish made from Bandeja Paisa is the El Colombiano (the Colombian): fries layered with Colombian refried beans and topped with chicharron (fried pork belly), chorizo (Colombian sausage) and finished with guacamole and pico de gallo. From up north, The Carolina: fries lightly tossed with vinegar, topped with pulled pork and coleslaw and finished with specialty tangy barbecue sauce. And from across the pond, El Griego (the Greek): fries tossed in Greek seasonings, topped with grilled chicken, tzatziki sauce and finished with pico de gallo.
That menu diversity is one of the ways Buena Papa separates itself from competitors.
“You get to introduce new culture, new language, new foods [to customers],” Windon said. “When you walk into one of our places, you're going to feel like you're on vacation. Like the time you went to Cancun or the time you went to Puerto Rico.”
Some of the menu items are in Spanish, which Windon says customers have fun with but is also helpful in teaching them a new language.
There are three Buena Papa restaurants open, with a fourth and fifth on the way. They began in a food hall — Raleigh’s Morgan Street Food Hall — because that’s where someone finally understood the concept, according to Windon.
When they went to pitch themselves to the food hall, the person at the hall asked, “How many years do you have in the restaurant business?”
Windon replied, “Zero. But I'm going to figure this thing out.”
And he did.
The fourth Buena Papa will be in Miami’s Wynwood neighborhood. They’re just “drying the ink” on their first franchise agreement as well.
“What we're more excited about is that we can bring this simple concept to other people throughout the United States that are like us,” Windon said, noting that that’s people who don’t have a restaurant background but have business experience.