José Bonilla emigrated from El Salvador to the United States in 1983, eventually ending up in Brentwood
He spent much of the next 15 years working three jobs, around the clock.
He rebuilt brake shoes at a factory, prepped food and cleaned dishes at a pizzeria, and worked at a fancy restaurant on Motor Parkway on weekends.
“It was about 80, 90 hours a week,” said Bonilla, now 47.
During the few waking hours he wasn’t working, he managed to start a family.
More than three decades later, he’s handing the keys to a new tapas and tequila bar in Patchogue Village to his son, Ariel, 25, who had been working at the family’s La Confianza Deli & Restaurant on South Ocean Avenue.
“Now I gotta bust my butt,” Ariel Bonilla said after hearing parts of his dad’s life story for the very first time. “I really gotta earn my stripes.”
“My mom worked hard, too,” he added. “She had to clean houses.”
The younger Bonilla, who went to Bellport schools, is overseeing the construction at 224 East Main Street, which is the former Jalepeño Restaurant. His dad had opened Jalepeño, a Mexican restaurant, in 2014 but closed about a year later.
The elder Bonilla said the writing was on the wall that it wouldn’t work out, even though he has still been paying rent on the empty space.
But Ariel Bonilla was convinced the family was missing out on an opportunity.
“Patchogue is being built up,” he said. “It’s the same story everywhere. They’re revitalizing Patchogue and I want to become part of it. I want a bar that can compete with anybody’s.”
To that end, he’s looking to attract a diverse clientele of Spanish- and English-native speakers to the restaurant he’s calling Toro Tapas & Tequila Lounge.
Bonilla began kicking around ideas in September with a chef friend who had suggested tapas. “I had never heard of such a thing,” he said.
So he did a bit of comparative research by visiting a tapas bar and restaurant in Rockville Centre called Viaggio Tapas.
He was blown away — and by more than just the food.
“I fell immediately in love with the whole experience,” he said. “Just the small plates, with everything different. And the sharing, and the wine.
“I just wanted to bring that to Patchogue,” he continued. “I wanted to introduce something new to the people here, and wanted them to feel how I felt. It’s really a bonding experience. It’s eating and bonding.”
Bonilla’s restaurant will feature traditional fare from Spain. He’s hoping to have it open this spring or sooner.
All this is happening about 20 years after his father bought La Confianza, in 1997.
To make that purchase, José Bonilla had been saving his money dating back to the early 1980s, when he was making $190 a week.
That, and he got a little financial help for his brother, he said.
It was a good bet, as José Bonilla was later able to expand into the space next door on South Ocean and open Bravo Supermarkets in 2006.
José Bonilla had one simple piece of advice for his son as he sets forth on a possibly life-changing endeavor.
“Spend the time here,” he told his son, “and you will see the result.”
Top photo: Ariel Bonilla of East Patchogue at the newly finished bar at the future Toro Tapas & Tequila Lounge on East Main Street in Patchogue Village. (Michael White)