How One Family of KC Entrepreneurs Is Building a Mexican Ice-Pop EmpireDavid Cawthon
Barbecue is big in Kansas City. But what about ice pops?
If you’re culinary vocabulary is savvy enough, you know paletas (ice pops) from the Mexican state of Michoacán have the same legacy as Kansas City barbecue or Chicago-style deep dish. But a decade and a half ago, entrepreneurial couple José Luis Valdez and Lucia Fonseca were living in the Windy City and thought paletas could also make it big in the City of Fountains.
At the time, paletas were already huge in Chicago; they were sold in storefronts, and vendors dotted the city blocks.
“Chicago’s market was saturated,” José Luis says.
But Lucia and José Luis saw promise in a mid-size city straddling the Missouri-Kansas border. It was far more affordable than Chicago, had a burgeoning Hispanic community and, most importantly, the market was wide open for its first and only paleteria, which didn’t require as much equipment, employees or space as a traditional brick-and-mortar restaurant, like some of the Italian, French and Mexican eateries José Luis had worked in. Plus, the couple knew paletas: José Luis sold them when he was 7 years old in Mexico, and Lucia worked at a few paleterias during her time in their home country. So after doing some research in 2004, the couple moved their family to the Paris of the Plains with $15,000.
[[CTA]]The first Paleterias Tropicana was in a tiny shop on Southwest Boulevard in KCMO’s Westside neighborhood. The family bought some wood at Home Depot for a sign, which José Luis says was initially too small for customers to read. They worked eight hours to make about 200 paletas a day and offered 20 flavors of paletas and six varieties of ice cream.
And from the beginning, as it’s always been, it was a family affair. Lucia and José Luis often found themselves working around the clock and pulled in their two daughters to help with what they could.
Eleven years old at the time, Jennifer, now in her mid 20s, says she wound up doing a little bit of everything, working the front counter, cutting fruit, etc.
“I’ve done everything from the first products we had to the products we have now,” she says. “It’s crazy how much we’ve upgraded and updated.”
But after their first month, they had a scary moment when they realized $15,000 wasn’t enough. Paying rent and paying the business expenses became tough.
“When you don’t know the business, it’s really hard to say this is going to be enough to start it,” José Luis says. “I worked so hard to start it, and I was thinking, ‘Oh, my god.’ We asked friends and family if we could borrow money, and that was something we had to do. Otherwise we couldn’t survive.”
And so the couple rounded up funds and asked the banks for loans. But they found after being open for just a few months, without a business plan, the right numbers and business experience, landing that loan was difficult. They heard a lot of “thanks but no thanks.” It was a scary time—one that took an emotional toll on José Luis.
“In the beginning it’s hard because no one believes in you but you,” he says. “We had some sit-downs, face to face meetings with local banks, and we said that this is a good concept. If you believe in us, we can grow in so many ways. But sometimes, the banks said, ‘I like you, I like your concept, but we can’t go forward.’”
But José Luis says one bank finally said yes. And that was a big factor in the company’s early growth. Once the family had the capital, they bought their first freezer and started distributing to stores; today, they make a group of deliveries every day to a portion of their 180 total outlets.
José Luis says another big thing he learned early on was to listen to his customers, who have suggested everything from flavors to distribution locations to food items. Because of that mindset, Tropicana, as locals call it, now offers 60 flavors of paletas, ranging from avocado to passion fruit to coconut and spicy pineapple and beyond, and 58 flavors of ice cream, with the ability to put out 16,000 paletas a day thanks to a 5,000-square-foot factory, which José Luis says his operation has already outgrown.
“Nothing stands still at Paleterias Tropicana,” he says. “There’s always something new in the works.”
And he credits KC resources for helping prime his business for some of those big changes, like the tours-de-force that are the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Greater Kansas City, Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce and the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. But he still says he has plenty to learn.
“Don’t pretend like you know everything, or you’ll go backward,” he says. “Because every day, you’ll learn something new. At the end of the day, you have to ask yourself, ‘What can I do better the next day than what I’ve done today?’”
As for the food offerings, José Luis noticed some customers would walk in wanting a bite to eat, but would leave when they realized Paleterias Tropicana only had sweet treats. To keep people in the store, the family decided to offer up some Mexican faire, like quesadillas, tacos, cochinita pibil, carne asada, tinga de res, tinga de pollo, tortas and more. Plus, during the winter months when people pass up paletas and ice cream, that food menu and freshly made beverages keep the customers coming back (not to mention the company’s tasty fruit-filled churros).
But all that growth also required more stores. And that’s exactly what happened.
The Prescott Plaza location in Kansas City, Kansas’, opened in 2008; then another opened in 2011 in Wichita, Kansas; then another in 2012 in Olathe, Kansas; next the factory in 2017 in Roeland Park, Kansas; also in 2017, a location in the new Health Education Building at the University of Kansas Medical Center. Plus, their shop on 18th Street in KCK has expanded and has more room grow. And with all that came a slew of awards from local chambers, economic development organizations and in 2017 one of the top 10 businesses of the year in KC through the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce and the Kansas Commerce Department’s Minority Retail Business of the Year.
Business was a big part of family life and that life, the family says, has required a lot of sacrifices. Jennifer says she missed a lot of activities because she had to run the store or says she didn’t really have a summer vacation because she was needed at the shop.
“You know, it’s all worth it,” she says. “It taught us to be hard-working people and be involved with the business instead of reaping all the benefits without the work.”
But she says her parents also sacrificed a lot.
“When you start a business, you have to sacrifice your time,” José Luis says. “That was hard.”
But that sacrifice has paid off. Several original employees still work for Paleterias Tropicana; three of them run their own locations. The company boasts the average term of employment is seven years. And Jennifer and Lucero still help their parents out with the operations.
As their operation continues to grow, the family is thinking about the next huge step: franchising. But they still have a ways to go. Until then, José Luis says they’re giving back to those who helped them along the way.
“People in the community who knew us personally saw that we were hard workers, that we started the business from scratch,” he says. “They’ve seen the sacrifice, and now they see how we’re growing. And with where we are now, it’s time for us to give something back, to the community, to the church, to the kids, to nonprofits. We are proud to help them because they helped us. We want to leave a positive legacy.”