Small business owner turns frozen treat into profit
The Mangonada – mango puree, frozen to a soft serve consistency, traditionally served with chamoy and chili powder, is garnished with your choice of lime, a tamarindo stick or fresh cut mango.
This Mexican phenomenon divulges little history about its arrival to San Antonio; and no one seems to care, as long as ample product remains readily attainable.
“When my kids were growing up, I didn’t have three dollars for a mangonada,” said Leticia Aguirre, owner and creator of Tropic Express.
In the Alamo City, mangonadas are parallel to snow cones. A simple Google search for “mangonadas in San Antonio” generates 16 pages filled with food truck vendors, and small mom-and-pop shops ready to meet the high demand for the popular treat.
Among the list is Tropic Express, a thriving, family-owned, and operated business located on the far West Side of San Antonio that sells more than 40 gallons of mangonada a day. And, mangonadas are just one of the 84 items you’ll find on the menu.
Tony Jacobo, a frequent customer and general manager of a nearby UPS Store, keeps coming back for the aguas frescas. “Sometimes I get lunch here, it’s better than Whataburger. I tried their brisket torta and fell in love,” Jacobo said.
But Jacobo admits that it’s not just the quality food and reasonable prices that keep him coming back for more, it’s the family atmosphere that makes Tropic Express an optimal choice. “Mrs. Letty is from El Paso, and I’m from El Paso, when I come here, it’s like family,” Jacobo said.
Leticia Aguirre, or “Mrs. Letty” as her customers like to call her, moved from El Paso to San Antonio 14 years ago.
“I had four kids, and my husband had his welding, but I always wanted to work,” Aguirre said. Eager to support her family, Aguirre began selling funnel cakes at festivals back in her hometown of El Paso.
“Where I could have my kids with me, I would work, and that was my food truck,” Aguirre said. “So at night, everyone would be asleep in their beds and while they would sleep, I would vend.”
While at a festival in Las Cruces, New Mexico, Aguirre was approached by representatives from Six Flags Fiesta Texas that were left enamored by the taste of her product. They took special notice to the quality of the funnel cakes, and asked Aguirre what all she could produce.
“I said, ‘I don’t know. I can do shaved ice; I can do fruit cups.’ And they liked the idea of serving fruit cups,” Aguirre said.
It was not long after Aguirre signed her deal with Six Flags Fiesta Texas in San Antonio, that another major amusement park began to take notice. While working at Six Flags Fiesta Texas, a representative from Splashtown San Antonio approached Aguirre with a job offer.
“She said, ‘your product is really fresh, and we see how you slice the fruit,’” Aguirre said. “They offered a contract, and I said, ‘why not.’”
With the support of her family, Aguirre tirelessly worked both parks; and perfected her craft while at Six Flags Fiesta Texas and Splashtown San Antonio.
One day, while driving past an empty lot on Culebra – just blocks from her home, Aguirre turned to her husband and said, “Let’s purchase the land.” A lot that would become home to Tropic Express.
Shortly after, Aguirre ended ties with Six Flags Fiesta Texas and Splashtown San Antonio. “The first year was horrible,” Aguirre said. “Not even fifty dollars in a week, but I didn’t stop. And the second year, boom.”
The Aguirre family has grown Tropic Express into a popular attraction for locals. Aguirre credits her family for its success.
Her husband welded the patio area where customers converse over food; her son frequently makes trips to the store to purchase essentials needed for the business day; and her daughter, Nicolette, works at least, six to seven hours a day maintaining the restaurant and servicing customers.
“I love working here,” 19-year-old Nicolette Aguirre said. “I tried working at other jobs, and it doesn’t fit me. I like working with people.”
The success of Tropic Express has prompted multiple offers from entrepreneurs interested in partnering with Aguirre to create businesses in surrounding cities.
The idea of multiple projects mean Aguirre would spend less time at Tropic Express – a concern that she has considered for much time.
Unwilling to disconnect from the daily responsibilities at Tropic Express, Aguirre decided to franchise the business – a deal that will roll out in January of 2018. She also plans to develop a second Tropic Express in San Antonio by 2020.
“I don’t want to win that extra dollar, I don’t want to be a millionaire, I want to win their hearts,” Aguirre said.