Sometimes the best flavors are the ones you don’t expect. Yet when familiar, a flavor can transport you to a vivid and special place: a sun-soaked island replete with tropical fruits, your grandmother’s kitchen or a blistering summer day when the only relief was the cool of an ice cream cone. That power of transportation can be hard to find, but when you do, it creates a new memory all its own.
At Paleterias Tropicana in Kansas City (or simply Tropicana, as it’s known to locals), the flavors will take you to Mexico – specifically, a little town called Tocumba in the southwestern state of Michoacán. This is where, legend suggests, the tradition of Mexican paletas – ice pops – was born, and what inspired husband-and-wife team José Luis Valdez and Lucia Fonseca’s ice-cream empire.
Tropicana's 48 paleta flavors range from the traditional – strawberry, chocolate, vanilla – to those made with tropical fruit. There’s a creamy pistachio flecked with ground nuts; an off-white guanabana; a golden mango with bite-sized fruit pieces; rice-studded horchata and sweet-and-sour tamarind with chiles. These flavors are pervasive in paleta and ice cream shops in Michoacán. (In small lettering beneath the Tropicana logo, the phrase estilo Michoacán – “Michoacán style” – is highlighted.) You’ll find shops with similar names and taglines, not just in Michoacán, but throughout Mexico and pockets of the U.S. – such is the esteem for that state’s sweet history.
The ingredients used to make paletas are simple – just fresh fruit, a little granulated white sugar and water or soft-serve ice-cream mix – and they’re all made, Valdez says, with products imported from Mexico and using traditional Michoacán recipes. He says the flavors are either designed to offer patrons a little slice of home or a taste of something vibrant and new.
Valdez is a slight, wiry man with boundless energy. He sits in one of the slender booths at the Tropicana in Kansas City’s Westside neighborhood, a rack of fresh fruit piled high up against the wall behind him. He's beaming and waving at guests who pop in the shop to say hello and purchase sweet treats.
There are now five Tropicana locations in Missouri and Kansas. The Westside shop on Southwest Boulevard is the original, founded in 2004. It’s a small space squeezed into a row of Hispanic-owned and -focused businesses, but what Tropicana lacks in square footage it makes up for in abounding flavor. Aside from the large freezer stocked with a rainbow of paletas, there are an additional two freezers packed with 12 rotating ice cream and sorbet flavors, all influenced by Michoacán classics such as tequila and pine nut. There’s also the Tres Marias, where three scoops of any ice cream flavor combination are piled into a waffle-cone bowl and drenched in chocolate and strawberry syrups, then topped with multicolored sprinkles. It’s enough to make your inner 5-year-old – or the actual one eagerly grasping your hand – squeal with joy.
“Part of our job is to offer our guests a variety, especially with exotic fruits like mango, kiwi, papaya,” Valdez says. “The recipes are all from Michoacán, which is a very tropical state – and the most famous states for paletas. In Hispanic culture, we identify with those [tropical-fruit] flavors, because in our country, those are the flavors we’re tasting every day.”
The goods don’t end with ice cream. The menu also features fresh-squeezed juices; fruit “cocktails,” where sweet slices of mango, jicama and melon are dusted with Tajín (a chile-and-lime seasoning powder); yogurt smoothies called Tropishakes with energy boosts; and aguas frescas made with fresh fruit juice, water and a little sugar. In 2014, Tropicana launched Freshata, a branded line of horchatas. The company also serves from-scratch churros, elote (creamy, cheesy corn on the cob) and tortas.
And, as any Tropicana aficionado will fiercely tell you, there’s nothing quite as spectacular as the signature mangoneada. Fonseca developed her own take on the spoonable or slurpable mango sorbet drink, layered with Tajín, tamarindo (housemade tamarind pulp) and chamoy sauce. The sauce is another special import: Traditionally made from dried, salted ume plums, its thick texture and sweet-sour-spice profile make it a ubiquitous Mexican condiment, used liberally in desserts and savory snacks.
If that sounds like a lot of items, it’s because it is. And the plan, according to Valdez, is to grow bigger still.
The Westside Tropicana that greets guests today is not the business that Valdez started nearly 15 years ago. Back then, instead of TV screens displaying the shop’s extensive menu, there was a simple handwritten whiteboard featuring the three flavors – strawberry, mango and chocolate – and prices.
“We had people coming in and saying, ‘What are you guys selling? I can’t read it,’” Valdez says with a laugh. “We didn’t have the budget to buy a huge sign for our menu. We didn’t have a budget for anything.”
Not even, Valdez says, for storefront signage.
“People would cross our business outside without even looking in,” he says – a marked difference from the out-the-door lines Tropicana experiences today during the warm spring and summer months. “Sometimes, we needed to go outside eating an ice cream or a pop, and people would ask us where we got that, and we’d say, ‘Here! Right here! We sell it, come in!’”
At the time, that “we” was Valdez, his wife and his two young daughters, Jennifer, 9, and Lucero, 5. The family had moved to Kansas City from Chicago in 2004, the same year they opened the Westside location. It was important to the couple to ground their business in a growing market, Valdez says, rather than one already saturated with similar paleterias, like Chicago.
Both Valdez and Fonseca immigrated to Chicago in 1989, although separately – he from Mexico City, she from Mazatlán – and met while enrolled in English-language programs. Each worked in the service industry in Chicago; Valdez spent 12 years in the back and front of house at chef Rick Tramonto’s celebrated TRU Restaurant.
“There I learned from [Tramonto’s] passion, technique and knowledge,” Valdez says. “He really inspired me to one day, sooner or later, have a restaurant or our own business.”
Fonseca had some experience working in paleterias in Mexico, and opening Tropicana was her idea. She and Valdez researched recipes, ice-pop machines and markets across the country, including Austin, Texas, and Atlanta. They settled on Kansas City, where census data showed a burgeoning Hispanic population, the cost of living was affordable and, back then, there wasn’t a single paleteria in town. Kansas City, they thought, would be a place where they could grow with the community.
“At the beginning, those years were hard. I remember situations where we didn’t have the budget, and I almost threw in the towel a couple times,” Valdez says. “We didn’t have experience. We were new to the city; we didn’t know anyone. We just had the passion to make something. Where we are now… We’re grateful. We say 'valio la pena' – it was worth it. But at the beginning, sometimes we cried.”
Valdez points behind him, to the restroom at the rear of the shop. “I remember sometimes going inside that restroom and thinking, ‘Oh my God, what am I doing? I put my family here.’ I cried, and after I got out, my wife would say ‘Are you OK?’ And I would say ‘of course it’s OK!’ Because I knew if I cried in front of my wife, she’d cry too, and we’d give up.”
Today, the Tropicana empire includes a second location on Prescott Plaza in Kansas City, Kansas, which opened in 2009. Two years later, a franchise location debuted in Wichita, Kansas (and relocated to a larger building in March 2016). In 2012, another franchise opened in Olathe, Kansas, and in July 2017, a third debuted inside the Health and Education Building at the University of Kansas Medical Center in Kansas City, Kansas. The franchises have been opened by longtime employees – people whom Valdez trained and trusts.
“He takes people who’ve worked with us and shown their dedication, and he’s given them the opportunity to open up their own business,” says his daughter Jennifer, now 24. “He teaches them, gives them the tools and treats them like family.”
Family is the crux of Tropicana: Fonseca works out of the Prescott Plaza location, and she’s at the head of all recipe development for the company. The famed mangoneada is her adapted recipe, and so are the decadent churros and tamales. Nineteen-year-old Lucero is her mom’s “mini-me,” helping manage the books and run errands. Jennifer is her dad’s right hand, helping him manage factory operations and orders. Both daughters still pull shifts at the shops, too – something Jennifer doesn’t think will ever stop happening.
“I didn’t really have a childhood,” she says with a laugh, half joking. “I would always be working at the shops and be there with my parents. It was all about my family and the business, but I don’t regret anything. That’s made me who I am today.”
One day, Jennifer says, she’d like to open a business of her own – and thanks to her parents, she’s equipped for the challenge.
“I feel like what we have is amazing,” she says. “I don’t know what I’d do without my parents. They’ve guided me through the right path. They’re my backbone.”
A tattoo on Jennifer’s wrist – an outline of three paletas similar to the design of the pop on Tropicana's logo – matches her dad’s. Each family member has one in a different color, like marks of a tribe.
Tropicana paletas seem to be everywhere in the area: An additional 85 retailers in Missouri and Kansas City stock them, from Hispanic mercados to the Kansas City Zoo to the Kansas City T-Bones Stadium, where the minor-league team plays ball. Growth means more paletas, and with his new factory in Roeland Park, Kansas, Valdez is ready to meet the increased demand. Just like his shops, the factory is an explosion of color and activity. Valdez still has the same ice-pop machine he brought up from Guadalajara 15 years ago – it’s a sturdy-looking metal box about the size of an industrial refrigerator. It has a few odd dents here and there, a result of its transportation across borders and from store to store.
“This machine [was] made by hand in Mexico,” Valdez says. “Here in the U.S., they don’t do it like this anymore. The technology has changed. But this is our concept – authentic – so we want to do some things the old-fashioned, old-school way.”
To make pops with the machine, liquefied, puréed fruit is poured into stainless steel pop molds. Wooden sticks are placed in each mold and crates of molds are moved through the machine by hand, with workers manually tracking the time until the paletas are ready to move to the next step; each mold takes about 20 minutes. (This is much preferable, Jennifer says, to the early days, when she and her sister did everything individually and by hand – the most old-school way.) The machine can crank out around 16,000 paletas a week. Next to it sits a newer, Brazilian-made machine, sleeker and a little larger – it has an automatic timer and can make 16,000 paletas a day, with each mold only taking about seven minutes.
Valdez says he doesn’t need to make 16,000 pops a day, though – at least not right now. Today’s business only requires about 18,000 paletas a week (including delivery to all franchise and retail locations), and production goes down to half of that in the winter months. But there will be a day – soon, he hopes – that both machines will be kept busy.
There are an additional four ice-cream machines in the new factory: one from Mexico, which is used only for sorbet; two made in the U.S., which can produce 10 gallons of ice cream each at a time; and a brand-new one from Brazil, which yields 30 gallons at a time. Valdez needs around 320 gallons a week for all Tropicana locations, and deliveries are made daily.
In the back of the factory, beyond the dry-storage piles of pistachios and imported Mexican vanilla and cinnamon, behind the cooler chock-full of fresh fruit and the freezer packed with crates of ice-cream buckets and paletas, there’s a row of six neon-colored pushcarts bearing Paleterias Tropicana’s sunny logo. The carts are rented out for birthday parties, business functions, festivals and events. On top of one cart, there’s a lime-green box with a strap attached; Valdez slings it across his shoulders. It’s for vending at sporting events, he says, so that spectators can holler for a paleta just like they would a lemonade or bag of popcorn. Is the company currently using the vending boxes at any stadiums around town?
No, Valdez says, grinning. Not yet. But he’s ready for the opportunity.
When he was just 7 years old, Valdez started his first job: selling ice pops from a pushcart not so unlike the ones lining his factory. Today, at 46, he muses on the full-circle nature of his career, glancing around the colorful walls of his Westside shop.
“We’ve worked every single day because we wanted to succeed and we believed in this business, and in the U.S.,” he says. “Every day, I say thank you to this country and to God for giving me the opportunity to build a business with my family.”
All of the sudden, Valdez springs up from his seat at the slender booth. A customer has caught his attention – a man at the counter asking about the pistachio ice cream.
“Oh, you have to try it,” Valdez says. “And the pine nut – that’s my favorite. It has a nice smoky flavor.” Generous samples ensue, and the customer extends his hand toward Valdez for a shake. “Are you the owner?” he asks. “Every time I come here, I feel like I’m in paradise.”
Paradise – that word resonates with Valdez. “When you hear that, it gives you this powerful feeling,” he says. “It makes you feel like you’re doing the right thing.”
Valdez smiles – actually, he hasn’t stopped smiling all day.
“People ask me why I look so young, have energy and always smile,” he continues. “It’s because I love what I do. This job makes me feel young.”
Paleterias Tropicana, multiple locations, facebook.com/paleteriastropicana18st