His big dream built small business in Pilsen
July 9, 2012 8:48AM
‘I came to start a business,” says Abel Sauceda, who opened Panaderia Nuevo Leon bakery in Pilsen in1973, five years after he came to Chicago from Mexico. | Scott Stewart~Sun-Times
Updated: August 10, 2012 6:16AM
We can draw inspiration from sports heroes, deep-pocketed CEOs and humanitarians.
Or you can stroll through a Chicago neighborhood with small shops owned by big dreamers and find some amazing success stories.
Abel Sauceda makes that list.
Sauceda, 75, is a baker who owns Panaderia Nuevo Leon at 1634 W. 18th St. He has been in business for 39 years, selling more than 40 varieties of authentic Mexican pastries and tortillas in Pilsen.
At a time when Starbucks or baked goods from grocery-store chains catch our fancy, Sauceda is a throwback. Some of his pastries cost as little as 72 cents.
“And my prices are a little high compared to other [Mexican] bakeries,” he says in Spanish, adding that the taste is worth the extra nickels.
Sauceda, a native of Nuevo Leon, Mexico, attended school through the fourth grade. Not long after, he started traveling across northern Mexico to work in copper mines and clear forests for farming.
At 14, short on bus fare for a job several hours away, he found himself in a bakery with a few pesos. “The owner watched me eating and offered me a job,” Sauceda says. “Maybe he felt sorry for me.”
When work ran out there, he moved on to another bakery, then another. Eventually he ran his own bakery until it went bust.
That’s when Sauceda got his papers to move to the United States. He arrived in 1968, leaving behind a wife and three children. He chose Chicago because it was a busy city far from Mexico.
If he had settled closer to the border, maybe in Houston, it would have been too easy to give up and return to Mexico, he says. He was motivated to pay off debt for his failed business venture back home.
Once in Chicago, he took a job for a little less than $3 an hour in a painting factory, turning down a higher-paying position as a baker’s assistant.
“The lady at the employment agency said, ‘Can you tell me why you want to make a little instead of a lot?’ ” Sauceda says. “I told her, ‘I came to start a business. If I’m going to make [a lot], I’ll get too comfortable. I’d rather make less and keep trying for my own business.’ ”
He moonlighted as a photographer at local nightclubs, using a Polaroid to snap pictures of happy couples. Within five years, he secured a small business loan for $25,000 with help from a trusted lawyer. The bakery opened in 1973. By then, his family had joined him in Chicago.
Sauceda has worked tirelessly ever since. He arrived speaking no English and only speaks a little now. But he knows how to run his business.
The enormous ovens as well as machines that can churn out 1,200 tortillas an hour were designed by Sauceda.
I tell him he is part engineer, part baker.
“I am better than an engineer,” he says with a smile, “because I can also bake.”
Although his children help run the business, Sauceda is in charge. He has had deals to sell pastries to grocers but nixed some when they haggled over pricing. They had to pay what his walk-in customers paid, he says.
Sometimes customers come by the busload. Pilsen is home to the National Museum of Mexican Art and several Mexican shops and restaurants. It’s common for tour groups to show up.
It’s also common to see them line up in the bakery. “It’s fabulous,” Sauceda says.
I ask Sauceda if he will ever retire.
“No,” he says. “And I’ll never be old.”