May 29—CHAMPAIGN — When restaurants in Illinois were forced to close for in-person dining in the early months of the pandemic, local restaurateur Victor Fuentes started a construction company.
“Purely out of necessity,” he recalled.
The operator of both family-owned El Toro restaurants and his new construction venture, DECA Holdings, Fuentes is about to receive an honor that’s been on hold since June 2020.
On Wednesday, the Parkland College Foundation plans to honor Fuentes with its V. Dale Cozad Entrepreneur of the Year award.
Because of pandemic cancellations, the foundation has been waiting for two years to present this award to Fuentes, according to Executive Director Tracy Wahlfeldt.
She describes Fuentes as a humble man who exemplifies many of the traits of entrepreneurship, including willingness to take risk, drive and perseverance.
“His story is really remarkable,” she said.
Fuentes and his family own El Toro locations in Champaign, St. Joseph, Arcola, Rantoul, Danville, Zionsville, Ind., Walton, Ky., and Cincinnati, Ohio, and Taco Loco in Urbana.
Fuentes, who is president of El Toro, is also an owner of The Wheelhouse in St. Joseph, The Pink Pig in Ogden and Willow Creek Farm wedding and events venue in Urbana.
The restaurants altogether employ about 300 full-time and part-time employees, and DECA Holdings employs about 35, Fuentes said.
His wife, Jennifer, manages the El Toro locations at 1005 S. Neil St. C, and at 3401 Field South Drive, C, and handles payroll and ordering, he said.
Fuentes’ construction business, named for the first letters of their four daughters’ first names (Dominick, Emily, Christen and Angela), was born out of necessity, partly because his business owns real estate in the community and partly because when COVID-19 hit the restaurant industry, he, like others, didn’t know what was going to happen, Fuentes recalled.
“I had to figure out a new way to generate income,” he said.
He started DECA Holdings doing maintenance for other property owners and got his roofing license, he said.
DECA is now a full construction company, doing roofing, home renovations and smaller jobs, he said.
The 42-year-old Fuentes was born in La Piedad in the Mexican state of Michoacan, one of six children in his family. His father, who became a migrant worker in the U.S., moved the family to Chicago in 1991 and worked in a factory there.
Fuentes recalls getting into the restaurant business for the same reason he started a construction business.
“It was just pure necessity,” he said.
He began working at age 11 as a dishwasher in a Greek restaurant and worked his way up to cook, and later moved to Champaign. An uncle and cousin had an idea for a restaurant, and asked him to partner with them, he said.
“I was halfway decent at it, and here we are,” Fuentes said.
The first El Toro opened in 1998 on West Springfield Avenue in Champaign under the former name El Torero, and more locations followed.
Also interested in classic cars and outdoor activities, including hunting, Fuentes has learned some things about what it takes to succeed in business.
“I think it took me a long time to figure out,” he said. “To be successful, in my opinion, you have to stay humble and willing to learn, and not be embarrassed, to be ashamed, to ask for knowledge and help. If I want to grow as a business and a human being, that’s the most important thing I’ve learned.”
His advice to future entrepreneurs is this: “First and foremost, they have to believe in themselves,” he said.
And, he warns, “if they think they are going to be working 50 hours, they have to multiply that by two.”
As he looks at business owners he knows across a variety of industries, Fuentes said those who are the most successful aren’t necessarily the smartest but the ones willing to work the hardest.
“I believe people who do it, who are really good at it, they put the time into it,” he said. “They have to be the one making it happen.”
The restaurant business will bounce back eventually, Fuentes said, but, “I don’t see things getting better any time soon.”
On top of usual restaurant stress, there are now added stressors that weren’t there before — among them hiring enough employees and the rising prices and availability of needed supplies, Fuentes said.
Employment remains one of the biggest issues, he said.
“I believe it is going to evolve. I don’t know what into,” he said. “I wish I knew the answer.”
Prices on the El Toro menu have gone up a bit, Fuentes said, but not as much as he’s seen at some other restaurants. It’s important to him to keep El Toro affordable.
“We know how difficult it is for families in the community,” he said.
In addition to demonstrating the best traits of entrepreneurship, winners of the award Fuentes is receiving must be the founder of their business and the business’s origin must include vision, risk and creativity.
The company should be profitable and demonstrate growth, innovative employee programs and an ability to overcome adversity, according to the foundation.
When Parkland President Tom Ramage told him he was going to be honored, Fuentes recalled, “I said thank you. I said I don’t think I deserve it.”
Ramage told him some of the past recipients of the award, and many are people he’s admired from a distance, Fuentes said.
“I do not see myself in that category,” he said.
Past recipients of the V. Dale Cozad Entrepreneur of the Year award:
— 2019: David Downey.
— 2018: Robert Libman and family.
— 2017 Jeffery Hartman.
— 2016: Lori Gold Patterson.
— 2015: Steve Hillard.
— 2014: Murray Wise.
— 2013: Rudy Frasca.
— 2012: Dwight Miller.
— 2011: Rick Stephens.
— 2010: Clinton Atkins.