Welcome back to our blog series! We have an exciting tale to tell. Today we get to the to the ‘meat’ of the story…when Vincente started this wonderful company that we love.
The Food Business Emerges
Vincente was thankful that the gold brokerage business allowed him to support his family. However, it did not fulfill his spirit. Vincente observed that Northwest Indiana, and especially East Chicago, was becoming the home of many Mexicans. However, grocery stores stocked food for Americans of Northern European descent, overlooking the needs of the growing Mexican market.
Vincente saw an opportunity and grabbed it.
One evening, Vincente grabbed two clean five-gallon pails and walked to one of the nearby farms to get some milk. He then brought the milk home, made it into a batch of cheese using his family’s secret recipes and then sold that cheese to a local grocer. Vincente was passionate about making food products. With those sales, the food business was born!
Vincente’s entrepreneurial heart showed him the way. He was creative with his available resources help to get the business and up running. The original batches of cheese were made in bathtub, a practice that was common at the time. Another product, nopales, was developed from a cactus vegetable. Vincente would strip the prickly thorns in a washing machine dedicated to this purpose.
Two years after starting his business, the stock market crashed in 1929 and the Great Depression followed. During this period, families lost everything and some barley had anything to eat. However, because Vincente’s overhead was low and he dominated the Mexican foods market, he not only remained in business, the business continued to grow.
He opened his first store front at 3501 Deodars where the family lived behind the store in a small apartment. A few years later, the store expanded across the street.
From his base of operations on Deodars Street, Vincente focused heavily on the wholesale food market. During the week, he would remove the back seat from the family sedan and use the car to deliver food products to his customers. He returned that seat to the car by the weekend, so he could take his family to the beaches and other outings on his day off.
By 1930 these customers extended to regions in Michigan Illinois, Ohio, and all-over Northwest Indiana. As the geography for his business expanded, so did his product line. The simple cheese business would find itself adding product after product in order to meet the needs of his growing customer base. Vincente would either make the product himself, buy the product wholesale from a supplier or he would enter into reciprocal arrangements where he would provide another producer’s product in exchange for that individual doing so with Vincente’s products. That number of fantastic products grew to around 300 items!The market continued to blossom as more and more grocers picked up the product line.
Today, El Popular products can be found in many local and national-chain grocery stores such as: Strack & Van Til, Jewel-Osco, Marsh, Food4Less, Walmart, Meijer, and Aldi to name a few.
The Challenge of Competition
Two stories remain about competitors during the early years. The first involved young brothers from Chihuahua. Vincente and Ana provided them with food and shelter while also teaching them how to make cheese. These two brothers eventually became skilled at this task. Unfortunately, a competitor in East Chicago would entice them into leaving Vincente and joining his business. When they did, they brought that skill to his competitor’s business and removed the production capacity from Vincente.
The second story has a more dramatic ending. As Chicago grew, so did its Mexican population and the demand for Mexican food products. There was a well-known corner in Chicago where local Mexicans would gather to purchase Mexican foods from various vendors. Of greatest interest was chorizo, which was one of Vincente’s strongest product lines.
Every morning Vincente would rise early and make fresh chorizo in his East Chicago facility. When ready, he would jump into the car and drive to Chicago to complete his sales of the product. The same competitor who enticed the brothers from Chihuahua to come to work with him saw what Vincente was doing with his chorizo so he entered the business as well.
Soon, the mornings were a frantic competition between the two vendors to see who could complete production of the product and arrive on the Chicago street corner first. The first to arrive on the corner would have the best location so the rush to Chicago was a competitive event.
One tragic morning, Vincente and his competitor, Mr. Flores, headed to Chicago at the same time. Vincente was in the lead with Mr. Flores in close pursuit. The route into the city crosses many railroad tracks; on a busy morning train traffic can be a significant factor on commute time to the city. On this morning, Vincente and Mr. Flores were neck-and-neck on their way into the city. As they approached one set of train tracks, the next train was very close to the intersection. Vincente made it across the tracks just ahead of the train’s arrival at the crossing. Sadly, Mr. Flores was not as fortunate. He died that morning when the train struck his car loaded with chorizo.
Tune in next month to learn about the inheritance and the history of the brand. Meanwhile, have you checked out our recipe page?