A family restaurant in a college town

A story I wrote for Carolina Eats

It was the ketchup that did it.

Turtle Harrison and brothers Juan Jose and Rolando Ordonez Ramos have a combined 50 years of restaurant experience. So when they opened Roots Bistro, Bakery and Bar across from the UNC-Chapel Hill campus a few months ago, Harrison didn’t think there would be many surprises.

But three owners hadn’t worked with students much — their management experience in the last few years has been in full-service restaurants like Squid’s, Spanky’s and Nantucket Grill. Opening a restaurant on student-saturated East Franklin meant different types of requests. Like ketchup.

“I really forgot, like holy crap, people like ketchup,” Turtle says. “Or, ‘Can we have a tequila shot?’ It keeps me on my feet.”

Turtle, Juan Jose and Rolando wanted to open a restaurant that fused their Guatemalan and North Carolina roots for years. But when Turtle got a call about renting the newly empty East Franklin location (Top This! closed in November), he was hesitant.

Durham’s food scene was better, and all three owners already lived there. Plus, Chapel Hill restaurants seemed to turn over every couple of years, and they weren’t interested in opening up a quick pizza or hot dog spot popular with students.

But in the end, they decided to go for it, thinking, “Why not go for it? Maybe we’ll give them something they haven’t seen before.”

“We’re not just cowboys”

So far, the restaurant has seen a mix of families, students and professionals. The restaurant serves breakfast (everything from plantains to French toast), to late night cocktails (like the “Tea Tortuga” named after Turtle). They’ve even expanded started offering a Latin dance night on Saturdays.

Turtle says they’re dedicated to serving food their own families would want to eat — fresh and authentic. They’re also very “service-minded” he says.

“We’re trying to produce something our families would love,” Turtle says. “We’re not just regular cowboys that want to open a restaurant and spend a lot of money.”

And it looks like they succeeded. After close on a rainy Sunday, the owners; families are milling about the restaurant. Juan Jose’s family came after church for lunch. His son and daughter sit at the bar folding napkins. Turtle’s daughter is there too — but at 10 months, she’s not quite old enough to help.

“Bringing Guatemala to North Carolina”

Okra, watermelon and slow-roasted meats are all markers of Southern food.

They’re also popular in Central American cooking. Turtle grew up in North Carolina, graduating from UNC-Chapel Hill in 2007, and Juan Jose and Rolando are originally from Guatemala.

“The flavors, the seasoning… they’re all really close,” Turtle says. “So it’s not that hard to do, it’s just no ones tried to do it.”

The menu reflects both Guatemala and North Carolina. There’s fried chicken, pork and grits and lots of fresh fish. But there are also tamales, pupusas and ceviche. And while some dishes may seem classically Southern, they reflect a shared food language.

“Every single plate in there is going to have a taste of both. We roast all our meats in house, which is culturally relevant to both,” Turtle says.

Turtle says his favorite dish is the fried chicken. It’s simple and “sometimes you have to go simple to be more delicious.”

That’s one of Juan Jose’s favorites too, and the tamales, which “people love.”

They’re both happy to have their own restaurant after years of working for someone else’s. They work all the time, Turtle says, and sometimes the days run together.

But Juan Jose says the family feel of the place — prepping the kitchen with Turtle and Rolando — has been his favorite part.

Because while Roots serves all kinds, the most important customer is family.

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