Buena Papa Fry Bar began in the home of James and Johanna Windon, who were simply deciding what their family should have for dinner.
Johanna was making bandeja paisa, a famous meal from her Colombian heritage. The dish is mixed with chorizo, avocado rice, beans, and fried pork belly. However, on that fateful day, the household was out of rice. It was also 2020, a time when people were strategic about their visits to the grocery store. Upon discovering this missing piece, James suggested they replace the rice with French fries since he was learning how to make them homemade.
A carb for a carb—a simple swap. Except it wasn’t. Bandeja paisa, and all of its ingredients, are big in Latin culture.
“I was shocked,” Johanna recalls. “No, you cannot do that. What is my mom going to say?”
But they carried forward anyway, and all of the Latin ingredients began seeping into the fries. Around the table, “we just saw eyes popping out,” James says. That’s when the couple knew they were on the cusp of something special. The duo was already on the search for their next move after their maid service was shut down due to pandemic restrictions. Why not open a restaurant?
After rounds of experimentation with the family, James and Johanna opened Buena Papa Fry Bar in 2021. Restaurant operations were housed in a 200-square-foot stall inside Morgan Street Food Hall in Raleigh, North Carolina. They debuted the concept after spending $40,000 in life savings and leaving $18 in the bank. On the menu, French fries—arguably the most popular side item in the food industry—take a center stage spot. Orders begin with 33 ounces of freshly made fries, which are then matched with global toppings. There’s Colombiano, Americano, Carolina, Mexicano, Italiano, Healthy, Boricua (Puerto Rico), and Griego (Greek).
The restaurant earned $18,000 in sales after one month. Shortly afterward, Buena Papa was discovered by Raina Huang, a competitive eater from California. She visited the shop, posted a video on TikTok, and transformed the brand into a viral sensation. Waves of people came to try the food for the next several months, to the point that Buena Papa earned $1.1 million in its first year.
The online noise became so palpable that it ran across the radar of “Shark Tank.” The long-running ABC show contacted James and Johanna and eventually convinced them to make a video pitch. At every step of the process, both were in disbelief at what was happening. But then they received notice from the executive producer that this was indeed happening. The couple that sparked a restaurant concept based on an improvised family dinner was now in front of serial investors Mark Cuban, Barbara Corcoran, Kevin O’Leary, Robert Herjavec, and Lori Greiner.
At the time of taping, Buena Papa had three locations and sold franchise rights to a handful of operators. In addition to the initial spot, the concept was in Raleigh’s PNC Arena (home of the NHL’s Carolina Hurricanes and N.C. State Athletics) and a mall food court inside Streets at Southpoint in Durham, North Carolina. James and Johanna asked the Sharks for $400,000 for 7 percent equity. After conversations with each investor, the team went with Herjavec for $400,000 and 19 percent equity.
“We tried our best,” Johanna says. “We practiced our lines about a gazillion times. There’s definitely confidence in our brand, but we’re pitching in front of these millionaires and billionaires and we’re trying to pitch them about something that they know nothing about within two minutes.”
The episode aired on October 20, and in the days since, sales have jumped 40-50 percent. Buena Papa has also received thousands of franchise inquiries from across the nation. James told the Sharks that he wanted to move fast, but he and Johanna have dialed back those expectations in the months after appearing on the show. He wants to ensure “our legs can support our head” first.
A fourth corporate store is on the way in Miami. The restaurant recently received its certificate of occupancy and should open sometime in the next couple of weeks. The standalone store is based in Miami’s Wynwood neighborhood—a high-traffic, tourist attraction that meets Buena Papa’s demographic requirements. Although the unit will be in a new market thousands of miles away, James understands how to build brand awareness. He’s been an entrepreneur for most of his life and learned marketing and sales in the entertainment industry.
“We have a lot of strategic plans going forward about social media marketing in Miami, strategic partnerships in Miami,” James says. “Definitely utilizing traditional media, TV, print, magazine over there as well as creating events around Buena Papa that involve the community so the community can get to know exactly who we are. And I guess ‘Shark Tank’ doesn’t hurt at all with promoting.”
Buena Papa’s goal is to open one corporate location every year for the next five years. Conjointly, the brand is budgeting for three to five franchise deals per month. The chain has inked nine agreements in markets like Chapel Hill and Jacksonville, North Carolina, and Atlanta. The first multi-unit contract was signed with New Jersey-based operator Tom Graziano who operates QDOBA, Subway, and other quick-service concepts.
The brand hired franchise consultants to help turn the restaurant into a repeatable, franchisable version of itself. Additionally, the company is developing a digital platform filled with answers to questions one may have about running a Buena Papa. Right now the chain is offering three prototypes—food stalls, standalone, and a kiosk.
“It’s going to take us a long time to get to all of those [franchise inquiries],” James says. “But we’re going to be taking our time to be very selective going forward with franchisees that have the business acumen, have the experience, and have the financing to make it a good relationship going forward. So we’re going to take our time building.”
Buena Papa struck a deal with Herjavec, but all of the Sharks were receptive to the company’s long-term objectives—except Cuban. The billionaire was supportive of the idea until they mentioned franchising, which he thought would significantly hurt their business.
James and Johanna took those comments to heart and researched why Cuban felt so strongly about the franchising move. The biggest culprit appeared to be a lack of infrastructure and not finding the right franchisee candidates. The couple refuses to fall into the same traps, so they’ve put benchmarks in place so that they can stop and assess before marching on.
It’s been a humbling experience for both of them. A “wild ride,” as Johanna says, but not one that’s stopping anytime soon.
“We are here now,” she says. “And looking back, we have worked hard and we’re going to continue to take that hard work piece and continue to move forward.”