CHAMPAIGN – Victor Fuentes was 18 years old when he and his uncle opened El Torero restaurant on Nov. 5, 1998.
Now, less than nine years later, Fuentes and his family are planning to build a new and much larger El Torero restaurant a few blocks west of their current location.
The move is just the latest for the Fuentes family, which is rapidly becoming something of a local restaurant force, operating four other Mexican restaurants in Champaign, Urbana, St. Joseph and Springfield.
"It's been like a roller coaster, but most all of it's been good," Fuentes said. "We live for our customers. They're the ones who pay for our living."
El Torero, currently located in a leased building at 2312 W. Springfield Ave., C, will be moving later this year, probably in November, into a new 5,200-square-foot facility at 2611 W. Springfield Ave., C, on a 2.3-acre site.
Fuentes, 27, said the restaurant has outgrown its current location, which seats only 120 people.
"It's very, very small," he said.
The new restaurant, which will be located on the south side of Springfield Avenue, will include a larger bar area and will seat 220 people indoors. It will also include an outdoor patio able to seat another 75 to 80. The parking lot will triple in size to 97 spaces.
Fuentes hopes to break ground on the new restaurant in late March, if possible. He still must get city plan commission and city council zoning approval. A plan commission hearing is scheduled for 3 p.m. Wednesday.
Besides El Torero, Fuentes and his family operate El Toro I at 1104 N. Cunningham, U, which opened in 2002; El Toro II at 1805 S. Neil St., C, which opened in 2004, El Toro East at 221 E. Lincoln St., St. Joseph, which opened Jan. 23; and La Fiesta restaurant in Springfield, which was purchased in October.
Victor Fuentes has an ownership interest in all five restaurants. His brother, Ezequiel, is a partner with him in El Torero and El Toro II. His uncle, Martin Fuentes, is a partner in El Toro I and El Toro East. Victor Fuentes has sole ownership interest in La Fiesta in Springfield.
About 15 Fuentes family members in all work at the local restaurants, including Victor Fuentes' brother, Juan, and two sisters, Anna and Martha. Martha helps out in between pursuing an accounting degree at the University of Illinois.
Victor Fuentes' wife, Lupe, also works at El Toro II, though her husband says she's completely overqualified.
"She's got a degree in computer science ... but she sells tacos for a living," he said, laughing.
Fuentes, who emigrated to America in 1991 from central Mexico, said he has worked in restaurants since he was 12 years old. He started in the business, first as a dish washer, then as a cook at the Silver House, a Greek restaurant in Chicago.
When Martin Fuentes decided he to wanted to open a restaurant in Champaign, Victor, young and single, agreed to join him, putting up $20,000 of his own savings.
Martin Fuentes had worked in restaurants previously and was working at a factory job when he decided to open El Torero.
"He was tired of not getting ahead in life," Victor Fuentes said.
Opening their first restaurant was an education, he recalled. They had thought $50,000 in savings would be enough to open El Torero. But an inspection by public health officials showed that they needed to completely revamp the kitchen and to make the public restrooms accessible for the disabled.
"We ended up spending $200,000," he said.
Fuentes said his family's goal is to provide both customer satisfaction and to build loyalty. That means providing not just a good meal at a fair price, but also acknowledging and remembering loyal customers.
"We want to be unique, to make you feel like you're part of the family," he said.
Ezequiel Fuentes said the family atmosphere extends to longtime employees.
"A lot of guys have worked for me for a long time," he said. "To me, they're like a family. They work for me good, I treat them good. Everybody's happy."
Victor Fuentes said his own family came from "very humble" origins and that the overriding goal is to provide a way for younger family members to be able to go to college and get ahead in life, as well as to make a good living for the family. Fuentes became a U.S. citizen in 1999.
Fuentes said he and his brothers and sisters "do whatever it takes" to keep the restaurants humming. That can include cooking or washing dishes in the kitchen, if necessary.
"If a dish washer doesn't show up for work, you do what you have to do," he said.
Fuentes said he and his brothers and sisters are doing well enough that they were able to "retire" their father, Salvador, who had worked in a factory for 20 years, about two years ago. Salvador loaned his son and brother some of the money he needed to open El Torero. He can be seen working there on occasion.
"He might be old, but he's still the head of the family," said Victor Fuentes. "We try and agree with him as much as we can."