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Dropping Mexico in Peoria Heights

An immigrant entrepreneur’s tale of toil and triumph.

by Mike Bailey |
Yeni Rodriguez and Chris McCall

Yeni Rodriguez and Chris McCall

Some people are entrepreneurial by nature.

Some people are entrepreneurial by necessity.

For some people, just getting to a place is an act of entrepreneurship, in and of itself.

Meet Yeni Rodriguez, co-owner and operator of the ice cream parlor Palarte. With business partner and Peoria attorney Chris McCall, Rodriguez recently relocated her frozen treats shop to Peoria Heights.

Hers is an inspiring tale of personal and professional risk-taking, from her immigration to Illinois from her native Mexico to her roll of the dice on her own business.

Her story starts in Michoacán, a state on Mexico’s west coast more than 1,900 miles and a 31-hour drive from Peoria.

“I started my own business when I was six years old,” said Rodriguez, who grew up in a family of 10 children in La Soledad, a village of fewer than 700 residents. She remembers the women of her community taking their corn to market to make masa tortillas and sell them, and she would set up shop close by to move her mother’s gelatin, of every imaginable flavor and color, which “sold out every single day.”

Her days began early, at 6:30 a.m., work before school. She was smart but restless, and formal education ended for her at the age of 12. Rodriguez learned to sew and thought clothing design might be her future. For a while she flirted with cosmetology, but found it “too girlie.” Culinary school beckoned for a time. The military piqued her interest, but her father quashed that idea. At 15, she opened her own grocery store, which she operated in Mexico for five years. Along the way, she was learning English by listening to American rap music.

By then the world was turning a corner on a new century, and Rodriguez got the travel bug. Her father had started coming to central Illinois to work at the Nestle pumpkin plant in Morton. “I came here to visit and ended up staying with my sister,” said Rodriguez.

Dipping in at Palarte

From 2000 to 2005, she lived in Chicago, but Peoria pulled her back “for better job opportunities” and “the opportunity to buy my first house.” She worked at a food canning operation in Princeville, then went to Illinois Central College to learn how to drive a semi-truck. Then came another career turn, as a personal assistant.

A new decade was knocking and the door opened in 2019 to becoming a partner at an ice cream shop, Palarte – “pal,” the first three letters in the Spanish word for popsicle (palata de hielo), and “arte” for artistry – in Peoria’s Metro Centre. Within a year, she would be the sole owner.

And then COVID-19 hit.

Her doors closed by government mandate, it brought her to the breaking point. “She was alone on a sinking ship,” said McCall, who had made her acquaintance during his 2020 political run for Peoria County state’s attorney. “She was talking about selling her equipment. I told her, ‘Don’t do it. Let me help.’”  Thus began a professional partnership that has brought them to 4301 N. Prospect Road in Peoria Heights, where Palarte shares a building with a State Farm Insurance office at the corner of Lake and Prospect.

“Peoria Heights is one of the most happening areas in central Illinois,” said McCall. “We are literally dropping Mexico here in Peoria Heights.”

Lining up the agua frescas

All of the small-batch ice cream is made on site with fresh ingredients. Up to 70 flavors may be trotted out in any given year, some of them created around holidays and other themes, with half of those on tap at any given time. “On tap” may be the appropriate phrase, as Palarte has a liquor license and offers something of a unique product in central Illinois: an array of alcohol-infused ice creams and slushies and agua frescas that come in cocktail and spirit flavors such as mojito, amaretto stone sour, Long Island ice tea or Fireball whiskey. With St. Patrick’s Day approaching, expect Guinness- and Irish cream-flavored frozen concoctions. Champagne- and wine-flavored ice creams are available, as well.

The Purple Rain cone

Mexican-inspired regular ice cream favorites, meanwhile, include blackberry queso, jalapeno and habanero chocolate. Rodriguez may be the chief ice cream maker, but McCall is no passive partner, happy to fashion a recipe or jump in and churn a little cream himself. The musician Prince inspired the popular Purple Rain flavor, for example. Can Raspberry Beret be far behind?

Her innovations can be spur of the moment, with her customers being the ultimate judges. “Whatever I have available, I turn into ice cream,” said Rodriguez. “If you bring me a lemon cake, I’ll make lemon cake ice cream … I never hear anybody say, ‘I don’t like it.’”

Palarte is open from noon to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday and from noon to 8 p.m. on Sunday, with extended hours during community celebrations. Don’t be surprised to see a Palarte bicycle with freezer in tow working the Downtown area during street festivals, Tower Park events and summer concerts.

It has been a long, long road for the 42-year-old Rodriquez, who all the while was working toward becoming a U.S. citizen, which she accomplished in 2021. Where exactly did she pick up this entrepreneurial spirit, and what has she learned along the way?

“I got the business side from my mom and dad,” Maria Delores Ortega and Cristobal Rodriguez, she said. And at every step of the way in that nearly 2,000 miles between La Soledad, Michoacán, Mexico and Peoria, Illinois, U.S.A., she has picked up one important nugget of knowledge after another.

“I have learned a lot of things from a lot of people,” Rodriguez said. She may pedal a soft – and delicious – product today, but “I learned business the hard way. I was very independent.”

Mike Bailey is editor in chief of Peoria Magazine

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