While some successful people go to extremes to grasp a life opportunity, others toil away for years, working hard to make their American dreams come true.
Such is the story of Alex Ortega, who has created a successful life for both himself and his family through his work ethic.
Ortega described his journey while going through his workday at Turtles Restaurant on Little Sarasota Bay.
Ortega arrives at Turtles on Little Sarasota Bay and walks the restaurant, inside and out, to be sure everything is clean and ready to roll for the next service.
He makes sure the bathroom is stocked, the coolers are set to the right temperatures and there’s no debris in the parking lot.
Ortega knows every inch of Turtles, having worked in the same restaurant since he was 16 years old. He was away from his home of Aguascalientes in Mexico for the first time and didn’t speak a word of English. He was hired to wash dishes.
In 1986, two families — the Flanagans and the Kellehers — opened Turtles on Little Sarasota Bay. The waterfront restaurant on Siesta Key has since been passed down to the next generation.
But there’s a third family who operates the restaurant: the Ortegas.
Just three years after opening, Ortega joined the staff and has since risen through the ranks. Now at 50 years old, he’s the general manager.
His family also calls Turtles home. His son Ezequiel is the assistant manager and his brother Julian is the kitchen manager. His brother Manuel is the sous chef, and his daughter Maria waits tables part time.
Ortega is back out the door to go to the bank and run any other needed errands.
He’s used to a fast-paced life, constantly going in and out of the restaurant for errands and is on the move in the restaurant to address any needs to ensure a satisfied customer.
Ortega has dedicated his life to the restaurant that helped him achieve his American dream.
He grew up on a ranch outside of Aguascalientes, a city in Central Mexico, with his mother, father and six siblings. Horses and chickens lived on the ranch too. His father was a teacher, and his mother stayed at home.
It was idyllic until Ortega was 8 years old and his father died of an aneurysm. His mother got a job through the school board and worked tirelessly to keep seven children clothed and fed. By 15 years old, Ortega was eager to chip in.
He had cousins living in Ruskin, Florida working in tomato fields. When they came home to visit, they were wearing nicer clothes and Nike sneakers. Ortega had never dreamed of leaving Mexico, but he suddenly saw the United States as an opportunity to help his family.
At the time, it was fairly easy to obtain a green card. Getting to Florida was the bigger challenge. Ortega crossed the border illegally, swimming across a river and walking for two days before feeling safe enough to stop to get food.
He worked in Ruskin for less than a year before moving to Bradenton. He was still picking tomatoes, but he’d gotten his green card through the rancher for whom he worked. Four months later, a cousin who worked at Chez Med, told him Turtles was hiring. Five years later, Ortega became a U.S. citizen.
Ortega returns to see that all the deliveries came in and the kitchen is ready for lunch service at 11:30 a.m. The kitchen crew is already in full swing, chopping vegetables and simmering soups.
A step up from making $70 a week picking tomatoes, Ortega was happy to scrub clam chowder out of soup bowls at Turtles, but he wasn’t content to stay behind the sink. He was picking up English and moving up the ranks. He moved from the dish area to the prep station and was promoted from pantry chef to sous chef until he’d worked his way up to kitchen manager.
Ortega fits some paperwork and phone calls in before the lunch rush.
Ortega walks around the restaurant checking in on diners.
When James Rainey, the same general manager who hired him to be a dishwasher, retired 15 years ago, it was a given Ortega would take over the position.
“I felt so motivated that the people I worked with believed in me. Not many people stay in one job for so long. I’ve seen so many chefs and managers here,” Ortega said. “What made me stay was my future, my career. I never got a chance to go to school, to have a career. I was so young when I lost my father, and my mom worked so hard to support all of us.”
The lunch rush has Ortega back and forth from the host stand helping to greet and seat guests.
The only positions Ortega didn’t hold in the restaurant before becoming the general manager were server, bartender and host. Since taking on the role, he’s done all three. There is nothing Ortega asks of his staff that he’s unwilling to do himself from bussing tables to mixing drinks. While covering the host stand, he didn’t stop wiping down the menus.
Ortega is back upstairs in his office to squeeze in more paperwork before the dinner service.
“I’m the general manager, but I’m also the secretary because I do payroll, pay bills and help with advertising. My son is in charge of the bar and banquets,” he said.
Ortega starts pouring beer and wine as dinner service picks up.
“I just run. I hostess, run food, bus tables — whatever needs to be done,” Ortega said.
Ortega always has had a fierce drive and a work ethic to match. Starting out at the restaurant at 16 years old, he didn’t have an education or any experience, but he knew hard work would pay off.
When he was hired, he was doubled up in a two-bedroom apartment off Fruitville Road, 15 miles from the restaurant. He rode his bike until he could afford to buy his first car: a 1979 Pontiac Trans Am.
When he couldn’t afford the tuition or time off for college, Ortega went to VoTech, which is now Sarasota County Technical Institute, and obtained certifications as a cook, sous chef, chef and kitchen manager.
The dinner rush is over, so it’s time for Ortega to call it a day.
Now, Ortega’s American dream carries on through his children, who have been provided opportunities Ortega didn't have himself. His assistant manager and son, Ezequiel (known as Zeke since his days playing football at Riverview High School when he was nicknamed “Big Zeke”), graduated from the University of South Florida with a degree in biology.
Like father, like son: Zeke also started working at Turtles when he was 16 years old. In fact, all four of Ortega’s children have worked at the restaurant at one point or another.
“When my dad was flustered because somebody didn’t show up, he’d ask if we wanted to make a few dollars,” Zeke said. “Now, I try and help relieve some of the stress that comes with managing a restaurant. Whenever he has something going on, I can be here. And I’m his son, so I care about his wellbeing.”
Zeke originally intended to become a physician’s assistant. When he was suggested to fill the assistant manager position after graduating, Ortega’s answer was “No, he has other plans,” but the owners made an offer anyway.
“He did some math and said, ‘Dad, I think this is perfect for me.’ He can easily buy his own home now, and he’s 29. He got married, and I’m a grandpa,” Ortega said. “We have such a good relationship. It’s amazing. I can trust my family, so I can take some time off.”
Lesley Dwyer is a staff writer for East County and a graduate of the University of South Florida. After earning a bachelor’s degree in professional and technical writing, she freelanced for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Lesley has lived in the Sarasota area for over 25 years.