From fish tacos to corn ice cream, customers warm up to Michoacana’s Mexican fare
By Kathleen Brady Shea, Managing Editor, The Times
A Kennett Square entrepreneur remembers the day more than 10 years ago when she decided she did not want a permanent career in the mushroom industry.
Noelia Scharon approached three trusted co-workers with an idea for an ice-cream store, hoping she would not get a frosty reception.
“Right away, I knew it was a good idea,” said Juvenal Gonzalez. The other two partners, Martha and Manuel Rodriguez, recalled having an equally positive reaction, but tempered with trepidation: Could they really make it happen?
A decade later, two successful business ventures are generating rave reviews and a loyal – and ever-growing following – despite the dismal economy and some unwelcome obstacles: flooding, a failed expansion effort, and a fire.
“We’ve had our share of challenges,” Gonzalez said, acknowledging the understatement.
But the foursome, committed to 80-hour-plus workweeks, say the efforts have been worthwhile. La Michoacana Homemade Ice Cream, named after Gonzalez’s home state in Mexico, debuted in June 2003 in the 200 block of East State Street. In October, the group opened Michoacana Grill, a few blocks away in the 200 block of South Union Street.
“Follow your dream,” said Scharon, 45. “That’s the message here; it’s what I keep telling people.”
Scharon, who was born in Puerto Rico but relocated to Mexico at a young age, said she missed Mexican flavors like tamarind and mango. Her business partners, all Mexican natives, agreed, leading to a store that features an exotic selection of ice cream and water ice that first-time visitors often find daunting.
In addition to standard vanilla and chocolate, patrons can partake of passion fruit or pineapple, rice pudding or black raspberry. Containers of cinnamon and chili powder for dusting on the ice cream rest on the counter, beckoning the more adventurous palates.
Several months after the shop opened, a storm caused oil tanks in the basement to overflow, contaminating the building, but not the owners’ resolve. Even though Scharon and Manuel Gonzalez had kept their jobs at Kaolin Mushroom Farms during the first year of operation – just in case – the business was thriving. The evacuation would be temporary, they said, vowing to rebuild.
After the store reopened and began prospering again, the owners started a second store in Newark, De., but the location – a couple of miles from the University of Delaware’s campus – didn’t suit them, said Gonzalez, 44.
“What’s great about this place is that so many people can walk here,” he said, standing at the counter of the original site. “It has become a meeting place, which is just wonderful.”
Scharon said they deliberately keep prices low enough that neighborhood families can afford to visit. A generously-sized small dish or cone costs $2.50, a kids’ cone, $1.50.
Some regular customers, lured by the unusual, travel from as far as Reading, Lancaster, and New Jersey to satisfy appetites for corn – one of the biggest sellers – avocado, toasted coconut, Nutella, or mamey, a peach-like Mexican fruit.
Gonzalez, the ice-cream maestro, buys the bulk of his supplies from a local Hispanic market and enjoys experimentation. Many flavors, such as guavas and cream, get their inspiration from orchards south of the border; others, like almond and Kahlua, resulted from requests, which Gonzalez loves to pursue.
For the almond ice cream, he said he began pulverizing some nuts and added some almond paste for extra richness. After several versions – and a lot of personal taste-testing – he said he committed the recipe to his files, and watches with satisfaction as customers savor the sweet results.
Not every creation has generated diehard devotees. Red beans ice cream, for example, did not make the greatest-hits list. “But we sold it all,” he said. “So some people liked it.”
It absolutely had fans, Scharon added, citing orders that came from the nearby Exelon facility and a customer in Hockessin, De.
A spate of positive write-ups attests to the store’s reputation for quality. It has won “best” designations from Philadelphia Magazine and Main Line Today and is currently vying for bragging rights on Philadelphia Channel 17’s “hot list.” To vote, visit http://phillyhotlist.cityvoter.com/best/philadelphia. The Michoacana Grill is also a nominee.
Scharon remembered a phone call she received from a Manhattan resident who said he read about the store in the New York Times. “He asked me where the nearest airport was,” Scharon said. Taken aback, she replied, “Philadelphia,” but he said he was a pilot and could fly into a closer airport. “I suggested New Garden,” she said, adding that she didn’t know if he ever visited.
The idea for the restaurant, credited to Gonzalez, surfaced because the quartet actually had down time when the ice-cream shop closed during the winter. Gonzalez, who came to the U.S. in the late ‘80s, said he worked in Mexican restaurants starting at age 15, so the grill presented a great opportunity to capitalize on his culinary background.
The partners now divide their time between the two enterprises, sometimes alternating on the same day between scooping ice cream and preparing a variety of tacos, burritos and quesadillas.. In addition to sales of 35 to 40, 3-gallon tubs of ice cream on a busy day, the owners now deliver their products to more than 200 other venues in the region, Gonzalez said.
“You forget about the long hours you work when someone says, ‘I just traveled two hours for your ice cream,’” Scharon said. “In two hours, they must have passed five or six other shops so that’s pretty special.”
Martha, 36, and her husband, Manuel, 37, said seeing smiles on customers’ faces makes the job gratifying, and camaraderie with co-workers makes it fun. Both stores exude a family atmosphere, enabled by the high percentage of employees who are relatives. One day, some of the four Rodriguez children, who range in age from 2 to 13, are likely to be part of that mix, Martha Rodriguez said.
Like the ice-cream store, the grill hit a snag in its first year. In early July, an old refrigerator sparked a blaze next door, pouring smoke into the restaurant and forcing it to close. The partners revved into rebound gear. In less than a week, the Health Department issued an OK, and burritos were back in business
Scharon, the mother of three sons, one of whom works for the businesses, said the group greatly values its customers.
“Regulars know if they get here late and the door is closed, they should knock if they see lights because we’ll open for them,” she said of the ice-cream store. “I don’t think any of the chains would do that – and we like it that way.”
Gonzalez echoes her sentiments, adding that patrons’ smiles energize him.
“It’s amazing how a small business can bring a lot of different people together,” he said. “Seeing all the happy faces is great.”
One of them is Karen Halstead, a former teacher and school board member in the Unionville district who typically enters “her favorite sweet shop” singing. Halstead said she enjoys urging “newbies to sample the unusual flavors” and was touched recently when she was recovering from surgery and got a very special delivery of ice cream from the shop on her birthday.
“What a delicious addition to Kennett Square!” Halstead said.