21 October 2005

Ice cream pioneer still going strong

BY DAVID AGREN/Special to The Herald Mexico
El Universal
October 21, 2005

Several years ago, Adolf Horn, the former U.S. consul general in Guadalajara in the early 1960s, obtained a Cuban passport, allowing him to travel to his birthplace as a citizen of the island nation, which is presently off limits to U.S. citizens.
Horn originally applied to the U.S. Treasury Department, which approves U.S. citizens' dealings with Cuba, for permission to travel, wanting to check on the remains of his father and two sisters. Fed up with waiting, he phoned the Cuban embassy, which promptly issued him a passport.

"As far as Cuba's concerned, I'm a citizen," he explained.

Besides having the unusual distinction of being a former U.S. diplomat with a Cuban passport, Horn is also probably one of the few to launch a successful food service company in a foreign country upon retirement. The 94-year-old founded Helado's Bing, a chain of ice cream parlors, after finishing his term as consul general in Guadalajara. He also started the American Chamber of Commerce branch in Guadalajara in 1965, running it until 2002.

"There were very few Americans here who could take the position," he said, explaining why he stayed so long.


Along the way, he's become an icon in the local community, garnering respect from Jalisco's business and political elite. He counts prominent politicians from all sides as friends, including President Vicente Fox. Countless entrepreneurs and political aspirants most recently, Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) gubernatorial aspirant Raymundo Gómez Flores seek his advice. Former president Ernesto Zedillo awarded Horn the Order of the Aztec Eagle in 2000 the highest honor Mexico can bestow on a foreigner. Even a street in a Guadalajara suburb was named after him.

Although long involved in civic activities, Horn became famous for the ice cream shops that bear his late wife's nickname.

He scooped his first ice cream cone on Friday, Sept. 10, 1965, at a location near Guadalajara's Los Arcos. Helados Bing originally offered 17 flavors of ice cream made on site, selling it in a setting similar to U.S. chain Baskin Robbins.

"At the time, there wasn't anything [like this]. All they sold was ice cream made in a bucket," he explained.

Business instantly took off perhaps, Horn suggested, out of curiosity.

"All these Mexicans wanted to see this crazy thing the Horns were doing," he said laughingly, adding that by Sunday afternoon, the store had sold out of ice cream.


Helados Bing had opened 14 stores by the early 1980s, when Horn decided to step back, wanting to spend more time with his wife, Lena, who helped him run the business. Coca-Cola initially showed an interest in purchasing his chain, but the 1982 bank nationalization scared the soft-drink giant off. The company's Mexican president José Luis González who initiated the Amigos de Fox fundraising program later bought Helados Bing in 1983, but kept Horn involved.

The chain continued to flourish, implementing a successful franchise system, until González sold it along with the Holanda brand to Unilever in 1997.

Helados Bing has reportedly stumbled in recent years. Its presence in Mexico City has shrunk and, according to a recent Milenio article, some franchisees in the capital have expressed displeasure with the chain's direction.


Horn, though, wastes little time worrying about his former business; he's now involved with Helados Dophy, a competitor founded by González and named for Horn's diminutive Cuban nickname.

He offered some observations, however, on Helados Bing's reported problems. He said Unilever, upon buying the chain, dismissed a lot of talented people who knew how to operate an ice cream business and franchise system in Mexico. Many of the former employees went to work for Helados Dolphy.

"They changed the ice cream," Horn added. "Our ice cream was made from cream."

Although removed from the day-to-day operations of Helados Dophy, Horn still regularly goes to his office in the company's headquarters, wearing his trademark short-sleeve shirt and thin bow tie.

"I'm just here as a father confessor," he said modestly of his role.

Still, he shows few signs of slowing down, saying, "It would be great to live another 20 years to see how Mexico developed."

From the Miami Herald, Mexico Edition.

The great liquor scam


Be wary of establishments that serve liquor from unlabeled bottles.

 Story by : David Agren

Investigators from Mexico's consumer protection agency (Profeco) fanned out across the Republic in the lead up to the Fiestas Patrias celebrations in September, searching for illegal liquor, which in many cases is sold to consumers as something other than what it really is.

The agency found 30 percent of the alcoholic beverages it purchased were either adulterated products or drinks not conforming with federal regulations. In many cases, unscrupulous bars and vendors passed off cane alcohol or aguardiente de agave (distilled agave drinks) as tequila in violation of the famed drink's appellation of origin regulations, which mandate that only beverages made from blue agave in five states can bear the tequila name.

"When a bottle is shown on a supermarket display or is exhibited in a bar or restaurant, normally we haven't found any problems with adulteration," said Jose Rodrigo Roque, a deputy prosecutor with Profeco in Mexico City.

Problems appear, however, when the customer either can't see the bottles or when purchasing a beverage that lacks a proper label. Illicit beverages, according to Profeco, are served most often in night clubs, places offering barra libre promotions (unlimited national drinks for a fixed price) and all-inclusive resorts, which often cater to foreign tourists.

"There we feel we have a problem because you don't really know if it's an authentic product," Roque explained.

Compounding the problem, some bars fill used bottles, which have a label, with an adulterated product. The Tequila Regulatory Council (CRT) has initiated a program that collects old bottles for destruction, in an effort to curb the practice.
Besides selling illegal liquor in nightclubs and resorts, roadside vendors near tequila-producing town's hawk knock-off beverages in garafonitos (little jugs) for cheap prices.

"The alcohol they normally sell isn't dangerous, but we say it shouldn't be consumed," Roque explained. "It's an alcohol that is normally sold for chemical or pharmaceutical purposes. Additionally, its quality is extremely poor."

Bertha Becerra, spokeswoman for the Guadalajara-based CRT, said in many instances, the roadside vendors bottle cane alcohol, but call it tequila.

"If there's not a proper label, it's not tequila," she said, adding the CRT lists all of its approved brands on its Web site. "In this sense, it's nothing more than consumer deception."

A three-day Profeco sweep in eight Jalisco municipalities turned up 65 unregistered liquor brands, resulting in 28,691 liters of booze being discarded. It also discovered 35 brands that improperly used the tequila name. Roque said Profeco has pressed charges in 80 percent of the cases where it found illicit liquor sales or misuse of the tequila name. The CRT authorizes distillers to produce and market tequila beverages and makes the rules for its production.

From the Guadalajara Colony Reporter.

17 October 2005

Chocolatier has social vision for new venture

Cruz Guerrero

BY DAVID AGREN/Special to The Herald Mexico
El Universal

October 17, 2005

Mike McKenna, while inaugurating his growing company's new chocolate-making kitchen in Jalpa, Guanajuato, earlier this month, pointed to an odd source of inspiration: a nearby church with four walls and no roof. Its congregation celebrated mass under a tree for seven years before finally erecting the walls. The building still lacks a roof thirteen years later.

Someone started passing around a straw hat after hearing the story and by the end of the evening the assembled crowd had raised more than 3,000 pesos (US280). The municipal government promised to match the donations. The crew that constructed McKenna's kitchen will finish the job in the coming months.

"Twenty years is long enough waiting for Jesus to give them an answer," McKenna said laughingly, after the hat made its way around the grounds.

Although the story amused the assembled crowd, who nibbled on handmade truffles and artisan cheeses from Queretaro and sipped Texas wines imported by a San Miguel grape grower, McKenna's girlfriend Barbara Hartinger gently reminded him during the middle of his anecdote: "We're here to talk about chocolate."

María Elena Morena, McKenna's first employee, cut the ribbon, officially opening Sensual Chocolatiers' 500 square-meter facility.

The new kitchen, built on a hectare of land 20 minutes from San Miguel de Allende, includes environmentally-friendly designs, gardens and three pet burros. More than 4,000 agave plants surround the building. Twenty beds of herbs yield lavender, rosemary, sage, chilies and mint key ingredients in McKenna's eclectic creations. Sensual Chocolatiers also recycles its gray and black waters for irrigation purposes.

"I wanted this place to be 100-percent environmentally friendly," McKenna said proudly.

He also wanted to create jobs in an area with few employment opportunities.

"One of the reasons I came to Jalpa is because there's a lot of poverty," he explained.

His company now employs thirty people – most from the nearby area. Between two and five job seekers arrive at the kitchen each day. Some carry machetes to ward off snakes while trekking across the countryside.

"They come over these mountains in all directions," McKenna said. "There's a lot of walking in the Jalpa Valley."

An unconventional workplace, employees often christen the truffles they create and participate in hiring decisions. Employee-inspired truffles include: "Rosa Mexicana," a mixture of dark chocolate ganache spiced with cinnamon, almond and coffee and dipped in dark chocolate; and "Catalina," a combination of caramel brittle and coconut.

GROWING STEADILY In addition to the church with no roof, McKenna draws inspiration from the kitchen's bucolic setting and expects it will provide the same for his employees.

"These surroundings are for the people who work here," he explained. "This place will probably be closed to the public eventually" in order to maintain tough hygienic standards.

The kitchen's construction also created jobs, but McKenna, thinking in the long term, hired many of the same locals, who initially cleared rocks from the property. In the process, the men learned a skill. McKenna, a mason by trade, now considers many of them masters.

But McKenna situated his business in Jalpa for more reasons than altruism. The local women, he noticed, were especially adept at rolling masa, or tortilla dough: a skill similar to parts of the truffle-marking process.

Although the company is enjoying success nowadays, growth came slowly for Sensual Chocolatiers. Five years ago, McKenna, who has no profession confectionery training, sold his truffles from a tray in the San Miguel de Allende Public Library, making US12 a day.

Morena, who was working in McKenna's housing complex, joined him early on, forgoing a paycheck for the first year of operations. It took McKenna two years to perfect his first batch of recipes, which now incorporate Mexican staples like guava, chilies and agave and unique pairings like white chocolate with lemon and rosemary.

Through word of mouth advertising and a promotional assist from the municipal government, the business slowly started to expand.

Sensual Chocolatiers now produces approximately 6,000 truffles a week, selling the small indulgences through retail outlets in San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, Queretaro and Ajijic, Jalisco and directly to wholesale customers. The local municipality, the Guanajuato state government and Los Pinos (the president's residence) now gift Sensual Chocolates' truffles to visiting dignitaries.

The Canadian expatriate aspires to greater things though.

"My goal is to franchise in the United States," he said, adding that he's fielded inquiries from the as far way as Hawaii and the Middle East.

"If we can do that then we've got the capability of expanding four fold."

And even more importantly to McKenna, it would create more jobs.

From the Miami Herald, Mexico Edition.

15 October 2005

A shoe fetishist’s dream


Leon, Mexico offers a bargain-hunter’s cornucopia of footwear


Rows of cowboy boots in every conceivable colour and kind of leather stretched as far as the eye could see at the Bota de Oro (Golden Boot) in Leon, Mexico. The neighbouring store was peddling handbags for $4 U.S. each. And around the corner, an athletic shoe store sold knockoff Chuck Taylor sneakers under the “Everlife” brand with the name “Tuck Michael” and familiar star stamped on the ankle.

Many Mexicans — and a growing number of tourists — indulge their incurable footwear fetishes in Leon, an unremarkable industrial city 380 kilometres northwest of Mexico City famous for one thing: shoe manufacturing. A shoe-shopper’s dream, more than 5,000 stores operate in Leon, offering everything from leopard-print stilettos to canary yellow cowboy boots. Shoe stores fill entire malls, both shabby and chic. And where the shoe shops end, the leather stores begin, stocking an endless selection of jackets, belts and bags — all sold for jaw-dropping prices. A leather belt goes for less than $10 U.S.

“I’m drowning in shoes!” exclaimed my friend Nadine Lawrence, as we navigated narrow aisles of one of the countless “malls” in the aptly named Zona Piel (Leather Zone), a slightly rundown retailing district. She initially wanted to avoid the temptation of Leon, but couldn’t resist, hoping to find a pair of white cowboy boots to take back to her native NewZealand — along with whatever else caught her fancy and would fit in her suitcase. I went searching for sandals to replace the aging pair I bought in Leon in 2002. We weren’t disappointed, although we pored over a seemingly endless assortment of similar-looking merchandise in our quests.

Most stores crammed a respectable selection of footwear into impossibly small spaces Few provided any amenities — like a comfortable spot to try on shoes. Or a sock for the shoppers wearing sandals, offering only a hideous plastic bag to slip over a bare foot. While no one would confuse Leon with a fashion capital — it offers few avant-garde styles — pleasant surprises abound. Like the surprising number of shoes that fit Nadine’s Size 6 feet. Or the baby blue stilettos she plucked from a cluttered display for $30 U.S.

“I can see these growing on me,” she said, taking forever to choose the blue pair over the yellow ones. “What else do these go with?”

I picked up a pair of mule-style leather sandals for $20 U.S., the same price I paid for a similar pair in 2002. Finding white cowboy boots made from normal leather — not ostrich, crocodile or snakeskin — was less easy. But the Golden Boot came through, with the desired model for just $60 U.S. After an entire afternoon of shopping — checking out at least 200 stores — we left exhausted, seeing only a fraction of Leon’s shoe bounty.

From the Ottawa Citizen, October 15, 2005

13 October 2005

Jalisco pays homage to Virgin of Zapopan

Virgin of Zapopan parade

BY DAVID AGREN/Special to The Herald Mexico
El Universal

October 13, 2005

José María Romo, 86, needed a miracle. He broke his lower leg playing soccer in 1941; the bones jutted out through his skin. The injury wouldn't heal properly so his doctor recommended amputating his foot. Romo prayed to the Virgin of Zapopan, asking for intervention.

Today, 64 years later, Romo proudly rolls up his pant leg to show where his doctor wanted to cut.

"I received a miracle," he says. "They didn't cut off my foot."

While most Mexicans observe Día de la Raza on Oct. 12, the day Christopher Columbus arrived in the Americas, much of Jalisco pays homage to the Virgin of Zapopan, watching her return to her suburban Guadalajara home after touring each parish in the local diocese. The Catholic icon perhaps ranks nearly as high in stature for Jalisco residents as the revered Virgin of Guadalupe, a figure deeply entrenched in the national mythology. Each year, more than one million people line an eight-kilometer-parade route, running from Guadalajara's main cathedral to the suburban Zapopan Basilica, taking in colorful indigenous dances and giving thanks for past blessings.

"There's no other event of this kind anywhere else in the republic," Romo said.

Romo grabbed a curbside spot for the early-morning festivities near the Guadalajara-Zapopan border at 6 a.m., but many in the crowd arrived much earlier. With the event regularly drawing so many spectators, many Guadalajara-area businesses close for the day. Most students receive the day off.

Some onlookers like Romo, who marched in the event for eight years as one of the virgin's guards, come to express gratitude or to ask for intervention.

Others venture out for the pageantry.

"We really like the dances," said María Magdalena Hernández, who brought her two sons to the event. "It's a tradition."


Indigenous dancers from across the region, clad in typical costumes, preceded the virgin. Boys, wearing masks and brandishing whips, cleared a path, keeping the overflow crowds off of the route. For more than two hours, drums thumped, metal shoes clanked and whips cracked.

With a massive crowd in attendance, hundreds of vendors set up puestos (stands), hawking everything from food to religious trinkets and photos of the virgin. Product sample wrappers littered the parade route. Tshirt vendor Memo Gutiérrez claimed a prime location at 10 p.m. the night before, calling the annual parade one of his best sales days.


The Virgin of Zapopan dates back to the 1540s, when the Spanish arrived in Jalisco. Originally fashioned from corn, the Spanish used the icon, which resembles the Virgin Mary, to pacify rebellious indigenous communities. The virgin allegedly healed the sick, leading the indigenous population to embrace her.

The legend grew after the Virgin of Zapopan, then residing in a specially-built cathedral in the city of the same name, visited nearby Guadalajara, which was under the grip of a terrible plague in the 1720s. The plague disappeared shortly thereafter.

More recently, adherents say the virgin arrested a 10-year decline in Lake Chapala's water level in the 1950s.

Pilgrims from as far away as Guanajuato and Zacatecas regularly travel to Zapopan, looking for intervention. Pope John Paul II paid a visit to the Virgin of Zapopan's home in 1979.

After an endless stream of dancers moved on and to calls of, "Viva Maria," the 20-inch virgin made her appearance, riding under glass on a flower-laden float and accompanied by guards in colonial Spanish costumes.

Tears welled up in José María Romo's eyes as the virgin slowly passed by.

"I feel immense gratitude," he said softly, dabbing his face with a handkerchief.

From the Miami Herald, Mexico Edition, October 13, 2005.

10 October 2005

Mexico ends soccer futility

Chivas fans

By David Agren

Mexico's under-17 soccer squad capped an improbable run last Sunday in Lima, Peru, winning the World Cup for its age group. It marked the first time the futbol-mad country claimed a world championship in the sport. Mural, a Guadalajara newspaper, summed up the accomplishment by saying in the lead paragraph of its Monday story: "(It) put an end to 75 years of mediocrity in Mexican soccer."

Making the win even more remarkable, the Mexican teenagers defeated defending champion and perennial soccer power Brazil 3-0 in the final.

The team's run captivated the nation's imagination and drew immense media attention. Some newspaper articles dubbed the young players, "Ninos Heroes," (Boy Heroes) a reference to the six cadets who died defending Mexico City's Chapultapec Castle against invading U.S. troops in 1848. Televisa broke away from its normal professional soccer coverage to beam in highlights of the Mexican squad's games. Jubilant fans crowded the Minerva glorieta in Guadalajara and the Angel de la Indpendencia monument in Mexico City after the win. Supporters also turned out en masse at Mexico City's airport to welcome back the team. The victorious teenagers later visited Los Pinos (the president's residence).

Mexico's victory bodes well for two of Guadalajara's professional squads, which haven't won a championship since 1997. Chivas and Atlas own the rights to nine of the 20 Under 17 squad members. Some legendary European clubs though, including Real Madrid and Chelsea, have expressed an interest in several of the young players.

Previous to this win, Mexico's biggest accomplishment was winning the 1999 Confederations Cup, a tournament for each continent's champion. The team, though, has mostly disappointed, despite usually having a high world ranking. Most recently, the men's team lost a 2002 World Cup elimination match to their northern arch rivals, the United States.