After Picante, a more than decade-long staple in west Charlotte’s Wesley Heights neighborhood, closed down last fall, many wondered what, if anything, would fill its shoes and if it would be able to stand its ground.
When Manny Flores opened Que Fresa, a fast-casual taqueria similar to Picante, in its place, he hoped to continue in the tradition that Picante established while forging his own.
But first he made some menu adjustments.
“[Picante] was more burritos and bowls,” Flores said. “They didn’t have a bar program, they just had fountain sodas.”
In addition to adding bar service, Que Fresa has also expanded their menu options for tacos all while being affordable – some tacos come in at under $5.
It may seem risky to open a restaurant so similar to the one that previously occupied the space and shut down, but according to Flores, who remains friends with the previous owners of Picante, it wasn’t a failure. They just wanted to focus on their packaging business. That works for Flores; he needs packaging.
“We actually still work together,” Flores said. “We purchase a lot of our eco-friendly to-go containers from him.”
Flores has reason to be confident in his latest opening. After all, this is far from his first venture. The founder of Que Hospitality also runs Que Fresa Taqueria + Bar’s sister concept, Que Onda Tacos + Tequila. Que Fresa is the sixth location he’s opened under the Que Hospitality umbrella, and he has no plans to slow down.
“We’ve got two [locations] in the pipeline,” he said. “By the end of the year, we’ll be at seven locations.”
He’s opened up a new location nearly every year since 2015, with breaks in 2020 and 2021 due to COVID-19.
“We always knew we wanted to do one to two restaurants a year,” he said.
Que Onda and Que Fresa are two sides of the same coin in that they’re both fast-casual, but they each have their differences.
“We created [Que Onda] to be a fast-casual taqueria, heavily focused on tacos, some appetizers, a lot of grab-and-go,” he said. “But we also built a bar in Que Fresa, our newest brand, to have full service as well. Full tequila program, full cocktail program to have that hybrid fast-casual feel that you can order at the counter, pick up, grab and go, or do the full service at the limited seats at the bar.”
Que Onda, on the other hand, is more service-oriented, he explained.
The decor in each location is also different, as is the ambience, the music, and the style of service.
Flores has Que Ondas located in Uptown, Matthews, Highland Creek and University City, with one set to open soon in Plaza Midwood, filling the space left empty by Coaltrane’s on Central Avenue.
He mentioned that he was purposeful in placing his first Que Fresa location so close to the Uptown Que Onda, just on the other side of Bank of America Stadium.
“We knew that they’re going to be so different that we could coexist,” he said. “We can put them side by side and they’ll be different.”
Growing up in restaurants
For Flores, being a restaurateur was in his blood. His father owned a couple of restaurants and his mother, a beautician, had a few beauty salons.
“I’ve been in the restaurant business pretty much all my life,” he said. “I was always around entrepreneurs.”
Before he became the restaurateur he is today, he lived in Washington D.C. for 35 years. He went to University of Maryland and obtained a degree in architecture. However, he was always passionate about restaurants, having grown up in them because of his father and working in them throughout college to pay for classes.
After graduating, he went back into the restaurant business.
“I really only had two employers, and both are amazing restaurateurs and celebrity chefs now,” he said. “One is Jose Andres.”
Flores helped the famous Spanish chef open several restaurants and became immersed in the many facets of the restaurant industry. Once he’d felt he gained enough experience with Andres, Flores began working with Richard Sandoval overseeing national and international operations.
Sandoval owned approximately 60 restaurants at the time, which required Flores to travel a lot. Once Flores met his wife, Paola, he knew he needed to make some changes.
“It got to the point back in 2014 or so that my wife and I decided [I was] doing too much traveling, and at this point, I need to do something for myself,” he said. “I had the experience, the knowledge and know-how, and the connections.”
The decision brought Flores, his wife and their two boys to Charlotte. He had frequented the city during layovers while working for Sandoval.
“A couple of times I’d get stuck here and really fell in love with the city and how accessible it was,” he said. “[I] saw a big opening for creating the style of food that we do, which is more modern, heavily focused on presentations, traditional flavors, but not traditional entrees.
“So that really catapulted us to take the leap of faith, move to Charlotte, leave everything in D.C.,” he continued. “My family is there. I have a very large family, but I knew that in order for us to create our first restaurant, which would essentially keep me home and not traveling with my employers, we’d have to open a restaurant, and not in D.C. just because it’s not affordable.”
He opened his first Que Onda location in Huntersville in 2015, an Uptown location in 2016, and has continued the growth from there.
Building from scratch
Flores had taken all of his past experiences and put them into opening his many locations. Not only did he utilize his restaurant skills, he also employed his architecture degree.
“The strange coincidence about my degree in architecture is that the first four restaurants I actually designed and built on my own,” he said. “My experience in design, my experience in construction management, my experience in the feel for this space, the flow, the good side of architecture, and what I call the business side of architecture flows right through me.
“So when I choose a restaurant, a lot of the design comes from me, so I actually apply everything that I went to school for, and now I don’t feel that it was sort of wasted time or wasted energy or anything like that,” he continued. “I actually use it in a commercial setting for restaurants, and even when I was with [Andres and Sandoval] that I worked with after I graduated, I would use that knowledge to create environments and experiences through architecture in full sit down restaurants and hotels. So it’s helped me tremendously.”
Flores’ unique background allows him to manage multiple aspects of his businesses.
In addition to using his architecture background, he’s also engaged his culinary side. He described the food at his restaurant as a “Mexican twist on global dishes.” One of the examples he provided was pollo guajillo, which is a spin on chicken Parmesan.
“So how did we put the twist on it, so to speak?” he asked. “So you have your chicken breast. Chicken Parmesan has Parmesan cheese melted on top. Finish on the salamander [a broiler]. We do that, but we throw this guajillo, mild pepper sauce, on top, this red sauce on top with bacon, pico de gallo, and avocado. Finish in the salamander for the cheese to get nice and crispy.”
Flores also talked about another dish they’ve put a spin on: fish and chips, which encompasses a Mexican beer batter, Valentina sauce, and a Mexican slaw among several other components.
People are receptive to these flavors now, but that wasn’t always the case.
“I don’t want to say that we had anything negative happen or pushback or anything like that, but definitely the restaurant scene in 2016 is not where it is right now,” he said.
One example he provided was the lack of queso on the menu. Patrons were demanding queso, so Flores met them halfway. Continuing in the same vein as his other Mexican twists on global dishes, he put his own spin on queso, and the patrons loved it. Flores says it taught him a valuable lesson.
“I think the only impact it really had was just, honestly, I think the word is it humbled us,” he said. “It got us to the point where we said we have to listen to the customer more than our palates. I wouldn’t even consider that a setback because we learned from it.”
The mission was to introduce customers to new flavors while simultaneously giving them something they were familiar with. It was tricky at first, but in the end, Flores said it worked.
“It took a lot of training from training the staff to get to the point where we are now, we could actually take the queso dip off the menu now and it wouldn’t impact us because of what we do and how the city has grown as well,” he said.
Don’t worry, though, he said the queso dip isn’t going anywhere.
For Flores, the plan is to just keep growing. He said he wants to open several more locations over the next few years and, barring anymore setbacks like the pandemic, so far things are looking good.
“We’re up to 200 employees now, so it’s been a blessing,” he said. “It’s been a long ride. It’s been hard at times, amazing at times, not so great, but all in all, the passion we have for hospitality and creating opportunities for others is kind of what drives us.”
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