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Alejandro Cortez Goes From GM to Restaurateur

At 27, Alex Cortez already has a lifetime worth of experience in running a restaurant.

Alejandro "alex" Cortez’s father came to the U.S. as an illegal immigrant seeking a better life for his family. Cortez wasn’t quite a year-and-a-half old at the time, so technically he could be a dreamer. His father was granted amnesty under Ronald Regan’s administration, taking away that burden, but it still bothers Cortez to hear the current president’s stance on immigration. 

“I have mixed views,” he says over a cup of coffee at Caribou. “I believe America was built on immigrants, so listening to this hurts when he says we should close the borders.” He does understand the argument about closing the borders to drugs—his brother-in-law died of a drug overdose at 23.

But he still believes in the American ideals that cause people in poorer countries to come here. “America has given us dreams, a house, car, a business,” and credit, he says. In Mexico, you have to have cash to buy even large purchases, he says, which means home ownership and cars are out of the norm for many people.

Cortez is now living his dream of owning a restaurant, but the road he traveled to get there had more potholes than a Minnesota road in spring.

At 15 Cortez became a father. He later married his girlfriend and the two lived with their parents while his wife finished high school and then college. Cortez did what he could to earn money. At first that meant going to Walmart and buying Tide on sale and then selling it to his neighbors at a slightly inflated price. 

When he found a job as a dishwasher at Chipotle, he considered himself fortunate. A hard worker, he went from dishwasher to kitchen manager in record time. It helped that he could speak Spanish, but he bristles at the notion that being bi-lingual was the only reason. Being told that turned out to be good motivation.  In 2010, when he was 20, Cortez had advanced through the ranks enough to apply for general manager at another Chipotle. “I didn’t get an interview and I was upset,” he says. “And then at a meeting it was announced that I was the new general manager.” 

A year later, his store was visited by Monty Moran, who was then co-CEO of the Denver-based Chipotle chain. After an hours-long interview that included everything from checking under chairs for gum and surveying the parking lot for litter, he and his restaurant earned the chain's highest honors. Ironically, he was able to achieve this feat even though 10 months before the restaurant had gone through an immigration raid where he lost 10 of his 18 employees and had to rehire and retrain.

His reward was a staggering bonus and the opportunity to run more stores. Being a superstar, however, took its toll on him. “I was living off Red Bull Monster and working 80 to 90 hours a week, from open to close,” he says. At one point, he finally realized work had not only taken over his life, but also his health. “I handed my keys to the shift manager so I could drive myself to the hospital,” he says. “I was 92 pounds when I checked myself in.”

Chipotle, he says, is a great company and with bonuses and stock options he was able to put aside money for college funds and for his future restaurant.

A friend owned a Wings and Things franchise and Cortez asked him to teach him the business. “He taught me a lot about being an owner and that mind shift to think like an owner,” he says. 

With a partner, he took over a small restaurant, Golden Grill, on Maryland Avenue in St. Paul, and expanded the name and the menu to Golden Grill Cajun Seafood. He brought in a seafood boiler, but it helped having the equipment and inventory already in place. “I told him I wanted a small restaurant, I don’t want a big one with lots of overhead,” he says.

 In January, the two opened the new version of Golden Grill and “we’re really killing sales,” he says, especially the seafood, such as peel-and-eat crayfish. “It’s different as an owner, you have to watch every penny. As a GM, you do, too, but you don’t feel it in your pocket.”

He’s still experimenting with the flavors for the wings and seafood, and toying with adding breakfast. “If you have a kitchen, why not?” he asks. 

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