I’ve known Jose and Sanjua for a few years. I’ve always admired them not only for their success as entrepreneurs, but mainly for their family values and for their humbleness. But don’t get me wrong: This interview was not an easy one to get. They finally agreed to it, but in exchange, I had to accept a dinner at their home. Being the devoted writer that I am, I said yes.
Once at the dinner table, the conversation flowed as the roasted lamb garnished with veggies and rice, and the salsa, guacamole, and tortillas were quickly disappearing.
First, we spoke about the business’s name. “El Sitio,” in Spanish, means the “place, the site.” El Sitio is also a town located in the Mexican state of Zacatecas, “where we were born and raised,” Jose and Sanjua proudly said. However, in Santa Barbara, Goleta, and Isla Vista we identify “El Sitio” as the place where we can go for lunch or dinner, and enjoy great Mexican food without going out of our budget.
Jose started by telling me that he arrived in Santa Barbara in 1971, and Sanjua, his then fiancee, arrived in 1979 to get married and established. From the beginning, they knew they were here to prosper and create a future for themselves and their future family, but never in a million years would they have imagined what they have so far accomplished.
“My parents were poor, very poor farmers who grew corn and beans. As the oldest son of 13 children, I helped my father with planting and harvesting.” Jose said. It is with humbleness that Jose explained that “in the old days we didn’t have tractors. One of us would be guiding the horse that carried the plow, while the other one went behind covering the seeds,” he remembered.
Once in Santa Barbara, Jose’s first business was gardening while Sanjua got a job at the production line at CUI Corporation. For this young couple, hard work and saving were their creeds. “We worked really hard. I worked from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. When Sanjua came back home from work, she did the bookkeeping and accounting for our business. She’s always been good with numbers.”
Another thing that Sanjua was very good at, was cooking. “I’ve been cooking since I was six years old, and I’ve always loved it. I’m good at it!” she said, her eyes lighting up with joy. Her 13-year-old daughter Ivette corroborated with an enthusiastic nod and an ample smile.
Both Jose and Sanjua knew that this particular skill was a gold mine, but it would take them years to tap into it. In 1990, they open their first restaurant on Salinas Street. Jose scratched his head as he told me, “It was not an easy thing, by any means. It took us eight long months and the good will, patience, and guidance of our business landlord, Mr. Fred Winters, to bring our dream to reality. We didn’t know where to start or how to go about permits; plus we didn’t have the money, but Mr. Winters believed in us.” Sanjua said she can’t forget that their family and friends opposed the Salinas Street location. “Everyone suggested either State Street or Milpas, instead. We didn’t pay attention. Jose and I intuitively knew that the food would attract the people, so we went for it.”
After the Salinas location got accredited, the Fairview branch opened in 1994, and then in 1996 the next El Sitio opened at the Ralph’s shopping center on De la Vina Street. They didn’t stop there. In 2001, it was the one on Calle Real, on the northwestern part of Goleta, followed by the Isla Vista location, in 2004.
Even longtime fans of El Sitio may not know that the restaurant will soon open its doors in Ventura as well. “It is a great location, at 2771 N. Ventura Ave., and we hope to have it ready in the next couple of months,” said Jose. But he warns anyone thinking of following a similar route that they should not think that the job of a restaurateur is an easy business or that money will be made immediately. “It takes a long time of reinvesting your profits before you can take any money out,” he said. “But God has allowed us to live free of financial pressures now, and have some extra cash to help others.”
Jose and Sanjua were reluctant to talk more about their charitable contributions, but it is well known that they frequently give to organizations in the community by donating food for nonprofit events, for school functions, for children’s sports, and for other causes. “Let’s just say that it is our way to give back to this wonderful community,” Jose said. “People have given us a lot, and we feel good giving to others.”
My conversation with Jose and Sanjua also centered around their children: Ivette and Pepe, 15, who was at a football practice during out dinner. They are two very impressive youths, not only because they are well-mannered, but also because they are excellent students who proudly carry their family’s cultural heritage. “It was Dad’s 55th birthday, and I wrote him a letter,” Ivette told me as we were eating our dessert.
She allowed me to share its ending. “Even though we’re from different eras, and we’re sometimes on a different page, I admire you. Your siblings, my aunts and uncles, are grand for their education, but you’re grand for your perseverance. You never give up! This is what I love the most about you, and it is a great example for me to follow. You’re the best father on the face of the earth. I love you.”
Yes, family and their love for one another are the most important things for the Gils. Their home has two decorative themes: hearts and roses. These can be found on the steps, on the shape of their chairs, carved into the chimney mantel and on the benches next to the pool, hanging on the walls, decorating the bathroom, and on the floor mats. Unless you’re very observant, you wouldn’t notice them, but there they are. Why? Sanjua has the explanation: “Red roses and a heart charm were the two presents that Jose gave me when we became boyfriend and girlfriend. He didn’t have any money then, but because of what they meant, those two things are the best presents anyone has ever given me.”
On my way out of the Gils’ beautiful home atop a hill in Goleta, from which you have a 360-degree view of the city, the ocean, and the mountains, I still had two questions for them: How do you define each other? After considering it for a minute, Sanjua said, “He sure is perseverant. Whatever his idea or his goal is, he applies himself until he attains it.” Jose told me, looking at Sanjua with great love, shaking his head from side to side, and giggling, “She is active, very active. She never gets tired and she’s always doing something.”
I also asked them what the most important lesson they’ve learned is. Both agreed. “The greatest success anyone can have in life is forming a strong, loving family that might not be perfect but will always be there for you.”