Mexican Ice Pops in Nashville
Although starting a business together was an exciting new venture for sisters Norma and Irma Paz, they turned to a familiar product for inspiration: the paletas, or Mexican ice pops, they grew up eating in Guadalajara. They opened Las Paletas in Nashville’s 12 South neighborhood in 2001 and have been producing small-batch ice pops filled with fresh, natural ingredients ever since. Norma Paz tells us more about what inspired her to start the specialty dessert business, how Las Paletas has endured through dessert fads and chilly winter months, and why they haven’t opened a second location.
Like many entrepreneurs, Paz wanted to start her own business in order to better manage her time, which was especially important to her as a new parent. Unlike many first-time business owners, she embarked on the endeavor with prior business experience.
“I had worked managing a store for many years, and I realized I was going to walk away with nothing,” Paz says. “I knew that I could manage a business and [knew] that running a business is the same no matter what the product is, so that adventure started.”
Soon after, the Paz sisters realized paletas were the perfect business idea during a family trip to Mexico.
“My sister Irma and I were traveling through Mexico with my four-month-old, and my sister-in-law, who lives in Kentucky, joined us for part of the trip,” Paz says. “Paletas are a daily treat in Mexico, so here we go to our daily paleta treat after dinner, and [my sister-in-law] was like, ‘This is so great! I would come back just for this. Wouldn’t it be great if we had something like this back home?’ And the light bulb went off for both Irma and me.”
However, the hopeful paleteros discovered it was difficult to explain their concept to potential banking partners and landlords who had never heard of paletas.
“[We focused on] sharing our passion for what we were doing and selling it to people because they were like, ‘You’re going to do what? You’re just going to sell ice pops?'” Paz says. “We realized they had no idea what we were talking about [and] we weren’t going to get them to understand it until they tasted it, so we just held onto our dream and our belief that this was going to work.”
Building strong business and banking relationships in the community helped the process along, and Las Paletas eventually found its home in the 12 South neighborhood, which has become one of Nashville’s most popular areas.
“Sixteen years ago, it wasn’t what it is now,” Paz says. “We just had a good feeling about that area [and] about the street. We were looking to open our location in the Hispanic area, because [that was] the population that was going to be familiar with our product.”
The 12 South neighborhood’s changing identity has raised commercial rent prices and led to several once-popular businesses closing their doors, but Las Paletas has continued to thrive. Now, it is one of the street’s longest-operating businesses.
“It feels really good, because it was the community that really supported us and kept us going,” Paz says. “The community still embraces us. It’s fun to see young adults come in that we got to know as kids and little babies; to see them grow has just been really fun. I could not see us operating anywhere else.”
Small Batch, Big Success
Paletas are meant to be a healthier ice pop made with fresh, natural ingredients. To serve an authentic product, the produce for the ice pops made at Las Paletas is sourced firsthand at a local market.
“The way we grew up eating them is [with] fresh fruits [and] real ingredients,” Paz says. “We continue to do it that way; that’s our business model. We buy small quantities of fruit, and our flavors are rotating all the time.”
In fact, the menu changes so frequently that a picture of it is posted on Instagram each day to let followers know what’s available – or what was available at the beginning of the day, depending on how quickly a flavor sells out.
“We started doing that because people would call and [ask], ‘Do you have this today?'” Paz says. “It does speak to our small-batch production because when that batch is gone, it’s gone. It’ll come back, but what dictates what we make is what we find in the market. [The produce has to be] ripe and ready. We can’t guarantee mango if the mangoes are green or if there are no mangoes in the market.”
Customers can enjoy classic fruit flavors like strawberry and banana as well as options like pistachio, Mexican caramel, and chocolate raspberry. Since Las Paletas is open year-round, the ever-changing menu features some unexpected but popular holiday flavors during the colder months.
“[Winter is] definitely not as busy as summer [but] the fun is that we get to do seasonal flavors,” Paz says. “People look forward to Thanksgiving because we do pumpkin, sweet potato with pecans, and cranberry orange; for Christmas, we do eggnog and gingersnap cookie with cream.”
The Paz family’s paletas are available in a few local restaurants and cafes, but customers shouldn’t expect to find the Mexican ice pops in grocery stores and other retail centers any time soon.
“[When] I got to participate in a Goldman Sachs program with Babson College [called] 10,000 Small Businesses through Pathway Lending here in Nashville, I learned about [franchised and expanded] businesses – like if you wanted to go into grocery, what does it take?” Paz says. “And really quick, we go back to our basics. What did we want out of the business? It was to own our time and be productive. I’ve got a 17- and 18-year-old, so my time as a mom is still important, but what it really kept taking us back to is the quality of our product and that small-batch production. Once you start expanding that, your processes change. The ripeness of the fruit is everything about our paletas, so it just hasn’t felt like the right thing for us.”
A different sugary, saturated dessert may be trending each week, but the paleteros on 12th Avenue aren’t worried about the staying power of their humble ice pops, especially as cravings for all things natural continue to nudge customers to healthier indulgences.
“We just know that what we do works for us,” Paz says. “We don’t worry about the fads that come because we’ve sustained our business through the recession [and] through all of these new dessert products coming on the market. We just do what we do and we still love it.”
Their customers love it, too, and for the proprietors of Las Paletas, that’s the sweetest treat of all.