SOUTH PLAINFIELD – El Toro Loco, located at 4701 Stelton Road, officially has a new owner. Executive Chef David Herrera took over ownership of the restaurant on September 25. The restaurant adjacent to Holiday Inn on Stelton Road was once a Ruby Tuesdays and became El Toro Loco in 2018, however, the previous El Toro Loco owners could not maintain the management of the restaurant. Herrera began as a bartender at El Toro Loco in 2018 and worked his way up to Executive Chef. Along the way, he was able to transform a failing business into a thriving restaurant serving Mexican and Tex-Mex cuisine with cocktails said to be inspired by the beaches of the Yucatan Peninsula. El Toro Loco also features an extensive menu of vegan specialties created by Herrera that draws customers from miles away. The story, however, does not stop there.
Herrera came from a big Italian and Cuban family where joy and lively gatherings for meals were common and loved. He is passionate about cooking, so when he saw that El Toro Loco was hiring, he was hopeful that he would be immersed in the energy and atmosphere he found with his own family.
Herrera began working one day a week at El Toro Loco in 2018 in addition to his job as a day laborer on a construction site. As the days went on at the restaurant, though, it was clearly not what he had expected, and Herrera decided to quit. However, before he got the chance, the General Manager asked him to fill the Bar Manager vacancy.
“A few months later, the Kitchen Manager walked out mid-shift leaving us high and dry,” Herrera said. “I asked the owners to allow me to do both jobs because cooking has always been my passion.”
Herrera said the owners did not have a lot of experience operating a restaurant and the cost was tremendous. They agreed, welcoming Herrera’s help. After proving himself to be a considerable asset to the restaurant, Herrera got an even greater opportunity one day when the General Manager quit. By January 2020, however, the restaurant was running low on money and considering closing for good. It was then that Herrera made a proposal.
“You have a few more months left in capitol before the bank accounts dry up,” Herrera told them. “If we’re going to close, let me do things my way and see if things turn around. I knew this was my chance to run the show how I always wanted to.”
Herrera says he immediately threw out all of the recipes and made drastic changes to the menus. He also hired a reliable team of staff members and got to work on turning the restaurant around.
“We instituted a vegan menu,” Herrera said. “I’m a vegan, so instituting that menu for me was not only big, but it was something that I really have a passion for on top of the rest of the menu. It was something that I felt really filled a need.”
The hard work paid off and the restaurant began to profit from it.
“We built a team I'm so proud of, a food and drink menu that rocks with some of the best vegan options in New Jersey, great reviews, stellar service and finally a direction for El Toro,” said Herrera. “January and February are typically the slowest for restaurants, but we ended up making February our most profitable month.”
It was then that COVID-19 hit and the fate of the restaurant hung in the balance once again. With a handful of people, one working from home to get the word out to market the business, another in the restaurant. Herrera worked harder than he had ever worked.
“I ran this place with one guy for 20 weeks,” said Herrera. “We couldn’t get deliveries, so I went to the Restaurant Depot, I loaded up my car to the roof. We would prep the food. I would do the dishes, I’d answer the phone, I’d run the food outside, and everything about this place is me. To be here today is amazing.”
During lockdown, according to Herrera, people with food allergies, special diets or vegans didn’t have many food options.
“People who really have stricter dietary needs, there wasn’t much for them,” said Herrera. “I would say that 60% of our business during COVID was with our vegan customers. I expanded the vegan menu during COVID, and people have been driving from Orange, Middletown, Hillsborough, Jackson to come here and eat. We broadened our reach to 30, 40, 50 minutes away.”
Herrera describes his extensive, ever growing vegan specialties as “vegan comfort food” and says that he and his staff have a relentless attitude for greatness. So, through it all, they have remained optimistic, continued to expand menu options and be there for his customers.
“We’re not out of the woods yet, but we made it through the most difficult part of COVID-19 and the lockdowns,” said Herrera. “We made it to the other side of that. The fact that we’re still here, I can’t even express my level of gratitude.”
Then on September 25, the day before his birthday, Herrera’s dream came true when he became the owner of his beloved El Toro Loco.
“Today is my last day in my 20's and while I’m scared to turn 30 tomorrow, I'm so excited for what this decade will hold for me!” wrote Herrera on his Facebook page. “Today, I stand before you in tears of pride from what we've been able to accomplish.”
To make Herrera’s story even more meaningful, on September 6, Herrera celebrated three years of recovery from drugs and alcohol.
“I battled through a very hard past,” said Herrera. “If you talked to me four years ago, you wouldn’t have given me a job as a cashier, let alone put me in charge of bank account info or give me keys to your building or the garage code for entry for your truck.”
Herrera believes he is a testament to what a second chance can do and for not giving up on yourself.
“There are a lot of people out there who beat themselves up like I did, and they don’t think they can make changes in their lives,” said Herrera. “I barely made it through high school. I had 30 plus jobs because I was never happy with what I was doing. And today I’m the business owner of a restaurant that I worked at one day a week to start, so it’s a testament of what we can do.”
Herrera also makes it a point to hire those in recovery.
“I have two people that work here in the kitchen that are also in recovery,” said Herrera. “I believe in giving people opportunities. I know what it's like how hard it is with people working a program who have a history of drug abuse, how hard it is to find a job that’s going to pay them a decent wage. I am a testament of what a second chance can do for somebody, so I’m a firm believer in that.”
An important component of the business for Herrera is to make sure his employees feel like they are part of the family. According to Herrera, one member of the team recently was unexpectedly kicked out of their apartment. Without skipping a beat, Herrera started a GoFundMe page and raised over $2,000 to help her put money down on a new home and put them up in the Holiday Inn.
“I make sure that employees have a place to come and make some money and also have a place to feel like they’re not another number,” added Herrera. “I’ve worked for tons of people who made me feel like just another cog in the wheel. If I fell off the face of the earth, I’d be replaced. Every person here that works for me is important. They’re just as important as I am.”
Herrera lives in East Brunswick but loves the South Plainfield location of El Toro Loco. Off 287, across the street from Piscataway, 5 minutes from Edison and close to New Brunswick, he says he loves the diversity of his customers.
“We don’t have a demographic here,” said Herrera. “We have people that enjoy good food. We have people that enjoy tacos, Tequila and burritos, but I love it because no day is ever the same here. It’s such a melting pot here and I really enjoy it. All walks of life really enjoy what we’re doing here.”
Herrera said he created the restaurant of his dreams, the place he had hoped to work at when he first started as a bartender two years ago. His Cuban and Italian roots have come to life in the place he now loves, welcoming every customer.
“This is my home. This is the place where I find my peace. I think that’s evident,” said Herrera. “When you come in here, you know you’re not a customer. You’re a guest. You are family or a friend.”
El Toro Loco is open Tuesday through Thursday 4p.m. to 10p.m., Friday and Saturday 4p.m. to 12a.m., and Sunday it is open from 2p.m. to 8p.m. Take out, indoor and outdoor seating are available. The staff is following all COVID-19 guidelines. For indoor seating, temperatures are taken at the door, masks are required when not seated, tables are spaced apart and QR code menus are in use.