When Viola Lopez’s son Checo wanted to start a business 17 years ago, this mother tossed out a challenge: “Decide what you can do and make money fast.”
At the time, 22-year-old Checo had been working at a car rental facility, but wanted to move on.
“I told him to remember that if we owned a business, we would have to pay rent, we would have to buy things that sell, we would need insurance and we needed a location,” says Viola Lopez, a forthright “captain” of her family ship.
Because most of the family members had worked a variety of jobs, including fast food restaurants, they felt confident they could run a restaurant. With help from his parents, Checo bought a restaurant location from some friends who were looking to retire. Viola named it “La Bonita.”
La Bonita locations
2839 NE Alberta St.
Portland, OR 97211
(503) 281 3662
2710 N Killingsworth St
Portland, OR 97217
Viola and Salvador’s children — Checo, Dulce and Joaquin — put in sweat equity to get the restaurant ready and, since opening the restaurant in 2000, have replaced all of the kitchen equipment. About 10 years ago, they expanded the seating area and added another window.
Viola remembers when she first came to see the restaurant and Alberta Street had not yet been gentrified.
“It looked so dark, so lonely, but when I opened the door I saw rays of light,” she says. “I had decided I wasn’t going to work there, but I came in and started.”
She worked as a cashier because she liked to engage with customers. Her son and daughter washed dishes, until they hinted they’d rather have their mother do it.
Joaquin had been attempting a career in California’s entertainment industry, but finding that it was “too harsh,” moved back to Oregon to help out his family.
“We all hopped on the boat to row together,” Viola says. In addition to borrowing some money to get the restaurant started, the parents also sold a four-plex to provide financial resources as it took several years before the restaurant became profitable.
Sometimes it was so slow that Joaquin would be outside playing his guitar because there was nothing to do.
“It was tough sitting by the door and watching people go to the Mexican restaurant next door, but I said, ‘Someday they will come here also, I know so,’” Viola says. “The people don’t know us yet.”
“It was super slow,” Checo says, “and none of us was getting paid.”
However, giving up was not in the family DNA. “We had no choice, we had to make it work,” he says. “We weren’t a designer restaurant where, if it didn’t work, you could write it off.”
Today, the Lopez family is still helping each other out when needs arise, but they have been able to hire managers, supervisors, cooks, cashiers and dishwashers in their two locations.
They enjoy sitting around telling stories of how they didn’t even know how to roll a tortilla when they started the business, how some mistakes were learning experiences, how they had to stop cooking with lard, and they took menudo off the menu because those foods wouldn’t sell. They also learned that horchata wouldn’t sell if it had milk in it, so they substituted it with cinnamon tea.
“We didn’t know what vegan was,” Viola says.
Joaquin says their experience with the learning process showed him how understanding people are.
They have many stories to tell — like the one of a man who was disruptive because he’d had too much to drink and Viola had to tell him sternly to leave. “I told him this was a family restaurant,” she says. “Later, he came back and became a nice customer.”
There’s another story of a young boy who would steal the tip jar, but the family never called the police. “He was just a boy,” Viola says. Years later, he came in and apologized.
They all admit the success of their business comes from the family helping each other. Although Viola and her husband Salvador are now divorced, he is still “part of the soul” of the business, often offering advice when it comes to major decisions. He and his current wife come in early on Saturday mornings to clean the floors and do general upkeep.
Viola and Salvador “liked to dream,” Joaquin says of his parents. His father, who grew up in a village called El Aquacate, in the state of Nayarit, Mexico, recently retired after working 37 years at Weyerhaeuser. But he always worked side jobs — selling insurance, buying four-plexes, and managing a cleaning business.
He met Viola in the early 1970s at St. Alexander Church in Cornelius. She was born in Raymondville, Texas, and her family used to migrate back and forth between Texas and Oregon, following the picking season. Her family eventually settled in Hillsboro.