When Guy Fieri chose Mrs. Potato as a featured restaurant on his show “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” owner Rafaela Lopes felt as if she’d won the Oscars of the restaurant industry.
When MetroWest resident Rafaela Lopes tells Americans she runs a potato house, most of them scratch their heads in confusion. To Brazilians like herself, potato houses are common. But to Americans, picturing sides of baked and mashed potatoes with their dinner, it’s a foreign concept.
Lopes is the founder and owner of Mrs. Potato, a Brazilian-inspired restaurant that specializes in both baked and rösti potatoes. Everything on the menu is potato-based, and there is something on the menu to fit various tastes.
“Potatoes go with everything, and that’s what we do,” Lopes said. “I don’t know many people who don’t like potatoes.”
PASSION FOR POTATOES
Lopes moved to the United States from Brazil eight years ago, and although she doesn’t have a culinary background, she does have a passion for cooking.
She taught English in Brazil, but when she moved to America to give her daughter a better opportunity for education, she needed to start working immediately. Getting her degree validated for teaching in Florida was going to be a timely process, so she began working in the Brazilian sandwich industry. A year later, she got a job near the Mall at Millenia as a waitress. There, she made the most of every chance she got to talk to the chefs about their craft.
“I was always very curious, and when I was in the kitchen and had the chance to ask questions to the chefs, I learned a lot from the four years I was there,” she said. “That made me more secure, so that when I had the chance to open a business, I wasn’t so lost.”
With her passion for cooking and desire to bring a piece of Brazil to Orlando, she opened Mrs. Potato in April 2014 on International Drive, in a small spot next to Twistee Treat. Based on the original Brazilian potato-house style, Mrs. Potato features more than 20 potato-based entrees that can be customized. One of its signature dishes is the rösti potato, a crisp and golden hash brown stuffed with anything ranging from vegetables and cheese to seafood or meat.
When the opportunity arose to move to the current location off Kirkman Road in December 2014, things began picking up.
That June, Fox 35 featured her restaurant on Good Day Orlando. Then, Mrs. Potato was featured in Orlando Magazine. Brazilian food bloggers and other publications took some interest, as well, and exposure steadily increased. The reviews from Lopes’s regular customers, foodies and the Brazilian community alike built up.
A FOOD NETWORK FEATURE
After three years in business, one of her wildest dreams came true, and unexpectedly. Producers of the Food Network show “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” hosted by restaurateur Guy Fieri, sent an email notifying Lopes the crew was coming to Orlando. They were considering Mrs. Potato as one of the featured restaurants, thanks to input and good reviews from customers.
“I read and read and read it again, and I just couldn’t believe it,” she said. “I got out of my office with tears in my eyes. It was such an honor just to be considered. I’d been in business for not even three years at the time, and not having any culinary background, you always question if you’re doing the right thing or if this is what you’re meant to do.”
After an extensive interview and inspection process, the material goes to the producers and Fieri himself, who make the final decisions. Two weeks later, Lopes learned Mrs. Potato made the cut.
“(Guy Fieri) was so generous and made me feel so comfortable. They really took into consideration what I wanted, because they knew it was my baby and they respected that. That was fantastic.” — Rafaela Lopes
Over the course of two days and more than 20 hours of footage, Guy Fieri and his crew spent time with Lopes, cooking and joking and offering tips of the trade. He was joined by two guests: N*SYNC’s Joey Fatone and Planet Hollywood CEO Robert Earl.
“All four of us were in the kitchen cooking,” Lopes said. “He was just that same character he is on TV — making jokes, tasting my food before I finished. What really surprised me is he is an extremely generous person — he would look at something and give me tips. He knows so much more than I do about food. I was more expecting this, ‘I’m famous, I’m Guy Fieri, I’m doing a favor for your restaurant.’ attitude. It wasn’t that way at all.
“I heard from them, ‘We’re doing this for you,’ many times, and that really, really amazed me,” Lopes said. “It’s their show, but they know how important they are for a small business and how life-changing that is in terms of business. He was so generous and made me feel so comfortable. They really took into consideration what I wanted, because they knew it was my baby and they respected that. That was fantastic.”
When Mrs. Potato is featured on the May 12 episode of “Triple D,” it’s likely that business will pick up. But the ambiance and feeling of the family-style restaurant won’t change at all.
“I always try to be here and talk to my customers; I pretty much know my regulars by name,” Lopes said. “That relationship is very important, and I’ll never change being that way. We’re a family restaurant, and that’s how I like to be known.
“I don’t know what to expect from the show airing,” she added. “This is what I worked for, and then actually accomplishing it? I’m having a hard time processing it. For me, it’s like winning the Oscars of the restaurant industry.”
Contact Danielle Hendrix at [email protected].