His grandmother and uncle owned restaurants, serving as the entrepreneurial inspirations that Almonte aspired to imitate. He started off as a busboy and moved up to become a waiter, bartender and eventually manager.
“I’ve always loved it,” he said. “I wanted to do it myself, and I went up through the ranks.”
Raised in Richmond Hill, Almonte joined the U.S. Army at 18 years old. He said he did not want to go to college, but desired to “do something with my life.”
He served in Iraq in 2003, and was awarded a Purple Heart after being wounded in combat in Mosul.
“It definitely changes your input on life when your life is on the edge,” he said. “I came back motivated as hell.”
After returning to civilian life, Almonte bought a small Dominican restaurant in East New York called Caoba Brooklyn Bistro, which did so well that he was able to plan for another restaurant.
Last Wednesday, Almonte cut the ribbon on his latest venture, Aura Cocina & Bar, a Cuban and Asian fusion spot located at 315 Meserole Street, an industrial area of East Williamsburg.
The restaurant is named after his grandmother, whom Almonte called a “hardworking, dedicated woman.”
Almonte, who wanted to “stun” his supporters with an innovative concept, said Aura Cocina is designed to be “modern and chic” while maintaining “old school Cuban” vibes.
In addition to its venetian walls and lime plaster, he said, the interior kept some of the “rugged” concrete look to pay homage to the site’s history.
“This was an old pillow factory,” he said. “To transform it to what it is today took a lot of work.”
After nine months of renovation, Aura Cocina will have a soft opening this week. Almonte, who now lives in Howard Beach, said the new spot will open its doors a few days before Valentine’s Day.
Though it has not officially open just yet, Aura Cocina hosted a premiere event for the Dominican romantic comedy film “Que Leones,” which debuted in theaters last weekend.
The cast of “Que Leones” joined Borough President Eric Adams and Almonte last week to cut the ribbon on the new restaurant. That was followed by a panel discussion in Spanish about the movie.
Adams praised the film, its largely Dominican cast and Dominican director, for telling their stories and for hosting the event at a Dominican-owned restaurant.
“The cutting of the ribbon is not something that’s just symbolic,” he said. “It was the statement that you are now cutting into the industry that has locked you out.
“You are now going to make sure you profit from the multi-billion dollar industry,” Adams added.
The borough president said in an interview that when he speaks to small business owners, particularly minority and women-owned businesses, they tell him that they face struggles like government bureaucracy and a lack of access to capital.
Even worker-centered policies like the minimum wage and paid leave should factor in the effects on small businesses, Adams said. His goal is to remove those barriers to allow small businesses to continue to grow.
“Every time the government makes a new rule, we’re hitting them at the bottom line,” he said. “We need to be there to uplift the businesses, not turn them down.”
Adams’s message to small business owners like Almonte is to stay engaged and not be discouraged. He said too many businesses of color have “thrown up their hands” and no longer believe it’s possible to open and maintain a business.
“Running something like this is a challenging task,” he said. “You have payrolls, overhead, things you must do to keep the lights on everyday.”
The borough president’s attendance at Aura Cocina’s ribbon-cutting ceremony was special for Almonte, who had imagined only taking a picture with his parents and his sister for the opening.
“This is just a dream,” he said. “I’m definitely honored.”