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Business owners struggle on 26th Street

The economy plus competitifrom street vendors has forced Raul LeticiPedrozoffer take-out service only El Pollo Ranchero 4147 W. 26th St.

The economy, plus competition from street vendors, has forced Raul and Leticia Pedroza to offer take-out service only at El Pollo Ranchero, at 4147 W. 26th St. | Dom Najolia~Sun-Times

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Updated: September 17, 2012 2:15AM

The enticing aromas I smelled at lunchtime on 26th Street in Little Village last week, coming from the neighborhood’s authentic Mexican restaurants, concealed the stories of struggles in a reeling economy.

El Pollo Ranchero restaurant can lure customers in with a feast for the senses but can’t sit them down. It is now a take-out eatery. Owners Raul and Leticia Pedroza, both 54, had to close the dining room and lay off wait staff to keep the restaurant open.

In better times, the Pedrozas owned two restaurants. Slowly they are losing what is left of their business.

They face increasing competition from creative street vendors. Some mornings you can get homemade tamales for a cheap price on a street corner. This time of year produce trucks unload ears of corn. Some vendors have permits; many do not.

“I understand everyone needs to work,” Leticia Pedroza said. “But why don’t they establish themselves? We pay taxes and bills.”

After two years of searching, Raul Pedroza found a second job at a storage company. On his days off, he runs the restaurant with his wife. While he works, her grown children pitch in. She looks older than 54, too tired for her age. There is anxiety and worry in her eyes, and the foreclosure of their home is one reason for that.

“We are just waiting for the sheriff’s order,” Leticia told me.

Near their restaurant, Veronica Castaneda, who owns Lolita’s Flowers and Perfumes, is making plans to take her flower shop elsewhere. It is a pretty store filled with beautiful roses and carnations as well as traditional Mexican silk bouquets, but Castaneda says her business is surviving mostly because of FTD orders.

By early next year she wants to move her business to Oak Park or Forest Park, where parking is free or at least cheaper, she said.

Castaneda, 45, is furious with the parking situation on 26th Street. Since the city sold its meters to Chicago Parking Meters LLC four years ago, the cost of hourly parking has skyrocketed. Visitors can’t get by for 25 cents unless they stay only 10 minutes.

To park you must use coins or credit cards, but credit cards aren’t widely embraced by Latinos, Castaneda noted. It’s common for people to enter stores looking for change because the machines don’t accept dollars. Meter attendants weren’t so vigilant in the past, according to Castaneda. “Now they hunt us down.”

Customers can’t run in for a quick pickup without getting a $50 ticket. Making matters worse, the pay-to-park machines aren’t user-friendly for non-English speakers, Castaneda and the Pedrozas told me.

The parking mess is in part why Fabio Campo took his business, Champion DJ Promotions, from 26th and Central Park to West Cermak Road in Cicero.

He also described deplorable conditions in the Little Village office he rented. “The building was messed up,” he said. “There was no heat, no air conditioning, nothing.”

I asked if he appealed to the landlord for better conditions. “She was losing the building” to foreclosure, he said. “She didn’t care and she was still collecting my rent. She left me there alone.”

He pays higher rent in Cicero but his customers seem happier, he said. “And I don’t have a problem with people getting all those tickets.”

Amid awful times, all the business owners share a common bond. None is ready to give up.

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