Smile Politely

An interview with El Paraiso owners Lusi and Jacqueline Aguilar 

A red plate has a birria taco with a metal spoon and a bowl of dipping sauce with cilantro on top. Photo from El Paraiso's Facebook page.
El Paraiso on Facebook

El Paraiso is a restaurant nestled in the heart of Downtown Urbana that specializes in Latin American cuisine. Dining at their establishment feels just like you’re sitting down with family: you’ll be welcomed with a smile and hot, delicious food. 

I got the chance to interview two of the owners about their business. Lusi and Jacqueline Aguilar have such passion for family, food, and culture. That combination has made them the successful owners of El Paraiso, along with their brother Kelvin Aguilar. They truly care about their craft and the people in this community. I was able to gain insight on their move from Broadway Food Hall, struggles they have had to overcome, and the future of El Paraiso. 

Smile Politely: Can you tell me a little about you? What’s your role at El Paraiso?

Lusi Aguilar: My name is Lusi Aguilar. I’m the co-owner and chef at El Paraiso. My family roots are from Ecuador. I have been in the U.S. for the past 29 years. I moved from Chicago to Urbana around four years ago. I enjoy watching soccer and many other sports. I like to dance and listen to music. I like to be outdoors and travel. I have a little dog named Oreo who keeps me busy. I cherish a lot of different foods, especially sushi. I love hanging out with my family and friends on the weekends when not working. 

Jacqueline Aguilar: My name is Jacqueline Aguilar. I’m one of the three co-owners and am responsible for the financial and marketing aspects of the business. I was born and raised in Chicago, later on moving to Champaign for school with some friends 11 years ago. I met my husband in the area seven years ago and decided I wanted to stay here and no longer move back to Chicago. I ended up convincing my parents and siblings to move to the area and get away from the chaotic Chicago life. 

provided by El Paraiso

SP: How did you get started in the restaurant industry? What made you want to open a business of your own? 

L. Aguilar: To be honest, I have never really worked in the restaurant industry before. I come from a customer service and accounting background. I learned to cook from my sister and stepmom growing up, but really, I was the one that cooked for our family. I was a fast learner who cooked for all the family functions, events, and holidays. It came naturally to me and turned into something that I really enjoyed — and was good at, which leads me to why I wanted to open a business of my own.

Everyone raved about my food and always told me to open a restaurant of my own. Family members and friends were always saying my food “was fantastic,” and “It’s that good!” — and that opening a restaurant would be a great idea. It got me thinking, so my sister, brother, and I decided to go for it. I knew I wanted to work with my family, build something of my own for the future and do something I enjoyed. Along with sharing my food with the public. It just made sense. 

J. Aguilar: I had no experience in the restaurant industry but have been involved in the financial world since college. We as a family have always expressed in interest of working together and building something for future generations. We decided on a restaurant because I saw a need for Latin cuisine in the area when I lived here. I was very used to a wide variety of Hispanic food except not much Mexican cuisine.

In Chicago, there is a vast diversity of Latin cuisine and growing up I was used to home cooking or when we ate out we would go to Ecuadorian, Colombian, Venezuelan, and other Latin restaurants that had similar cuisine to Ecuador. So when I moved to Champaign, I struggled really hard missing home food and even started to travel every other week to Chicago because of it and learned to cook some of the dishes we were accustomed to eating.

When I convinced my sister to move here, I brought up the idea of opening a Hispanic restaurant that offered food other than Mexican, which is the only Hispanic food I was aware of in the area at the time. 

SP: Can you talk about the first few days of opening El Paraiso in Broadway Food Hall? 

L. Aguilar: We were nervous at first, wondering how we would fit in with our style of food, but we were very excited about the prospects of being a successful business and growing while gaining great customers and a following. It was tough though in the beginning basically opening when COVID hit. Not being well established, restrictions, and wondering what the future would be, but we persevered through and here we are today. 

J. Aguilar: Personally, I was a bit nervous because we had all quit our jobs in preparation of this venture and COVID hit with all its uncertainties. However, our family was very supportive, and we had a lot of support from the community and were able to thrive slowly. 

SP: What was it like to move from Broadway Food Hall to your own space in Downtown Urbana? 

L. Aguilar: Obviously moving to a new restaurant location isn’t easy at any point in time, but overall, our goal was always to find a great individual restaurant location. When we found a spot Downtown Urbana, we felt it was a perfect match. Downtown Urbana has been so welcoming and supportive that we are so happy to be where we are at. BFH was a great experience and start, but we felt it was time to move to a better location with more exposure and to further grow our business. 

SP: What is the biggest struggle you have had to overcome as a business owner? 

L. Aguilar: Opening a business and being a business owner is everything we had expected. We made a plan, followed our plan, stayed together, and prepared properly for all the ups and downs that go with the industry. I feel we haven’t had too many major hurdles so far that we haven’t been able to handle. I truly hope it stays that way, but God has a plan and guides us on our path forward. If we had to choose one hurdle, I think it would be getting appropriate staffing in this current job climate. 

SP: How did you come up with the idea of El Paraiso? 

J. Aguilar: Our name comes from our grandpa reading and talking about paradise in the Bible. Paradise being a beautiful, quiet, and loving place. We went with the name El Paraiso to represent this as a type of paradise for our customers to come in, enjoy, and eat. 

SP: What is your favorite menu item? 

L. Aguilar: I have a lot of favorite menu items; it’s very hard to choose. We do run a lot of specials from different countries, and we feel we must really love the dish in order to have it represented on our menu. But if I had to pick just one menu item, it would have to be seco de pollo. It was a dish we grew up eating regularly and one I feel represents where my family and I come from. 

J. Aguilar: I think I would have to choose seco de pollo because it was a regular dish in our home growing up. I remember being teased often by my mother because I would want to eat it every day and she would tell me I was going to grow wings like a chicken one of these days. 

SP: How do you come up with the recipes for your menu? 

L. Aguilar: I can’t tell you all our secrets, but we started out with seven traditional dishes that I was very good at cooking and that everyone seemed to enjoy. It then grew from there. It was all about trial and error. We figured out what worked and what didn’t work based on what we wanted to offer our customers. We also entertained some customer requests for ideas as well. They really loved how I cooked some of the food requested so much that we decided to put it on our menu, but the essence of the recipes all come from my Ecuadorian roots and certain knowledge of other countries food, spices, tastes, and cuisines. 

J. Aguilar: I am not very involved with the recipes for our menu, but I have the pleasure of being the taste tester of any new cuisine we are thinking about adding to the menu. We often try to make sure we can try items we will be adding to the menu being cooked by individuals from those regions. For example, my sister has even traveled to some countries to get a feel of local cuisine such as Puerto Rico. Whenever we travel, we always like to try local food and discover new flavors. 

El Paraiso on Facebook

SP: What sets El Paraiso apart from others in Champaign-Urbana? 

L. Aguilar: We pride ourselves on authenticity. Our food is made fresh upon ordering. In eating our food, we want our customers to feel like they are at home eating a staple dish from their country. We offer dishes from a variety of different Latin American countries that aren’t represented in this community. We expect our customers to enjoy the flavors and spices from these regions that you can only find at our restaurant. I welcome all in this community to come join us for some good, tasty, and flavorful food. 

J. Aguilar: What I feel sets us apart is when you come eat with us, we want our customers to feel like they are back at home. We strive to make our food fresh and personable by customizing food to our customer’s preference. We also try to incorporate ingredients that are not very known to many, for example: plantains and yuca. 

SP: What do you find most enjoyable about owning your own business? 

L. Aguilar: Working with my family and controlling our own destiny. I love what I do, and I love going to work every day. This business makes me happy and fulfills my mental and spiritual well-being. Being able to focus my talents on cooking and food brings me great joy seeing how much my customers enjoy what I cook. 

J. Aguilar: I love the flexibility we have to enjoy our time off and be with family. One of the reasons I decided to stay in the area was because of the relaxed pace of the area. In Chicago, people are always in a rush to get to work and then home with just enough time to eat and then sleep. However, here, we close for an hour from 3 p.m. to 4 p.m., so we can eat as a family and have time to breathe between rushes as well. 

Ashley Cox

SP: Can you tell me about what’s in store for the future of El Paraiso? 

J. Aguilar: We will be opening a second location in Ogden come early to late spring. As of right now, we look forward to furthering our growth and partnership with the Urbana and Champaign communities. Long term, we envision one to two more locations, but those are future long-term goals. We also will be increasing our menu even more to include other Latin countries that we have not permanently added to the menu and have only included in our weekly specials. 

SP: Anything else? 

L. Aguilar: Keep an eye out for our weekly and catering specials. Please spread the word to all your family and friends. Come join us for lunch, dinner, or allow us to host your next event. I hope you everyone enjoys our flavorful dishes. 

El Paraiso
126 W Main
T- F noon to 3 p.m. + 4 to 8 p.m.
Sa noon to 6 p.m.

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