El Mexico grocery store says goodbye to Des Plaines
When Guillermo Gonzalez decided to open a Mexican grocery store in downtown Des Plaines in 1979, he was working in construction.
He had zero experience in the grocery business.
In fact, just two days before he opened El Mexico, Gonzalez went to a store in Chicago to buy steak so could practice cutting the meat.
"I told the guy, 'Give me two pieces of meat because I'm going to open a grocery store and I want to train,'" Gonzalez recalled. "He started laughing. He thought I was crazy."
But the gamble paid off.
For four decades, El Mexico, 1425 Ellinwood Ave., has drawn customers from throughout the Northwest suburbs by offering a wide selection of Mexican items. The store has everything from spices and canned goods to meat and pastries. There's even aisles stocked with cleaning supplies, candles and cooking utensils.
Still, it's all coming to an end on Sunday.
Gonzalez, who owns the property, agreed to sell to a developer that plans to construct a seven-story apartment building with space for restaurants at Ellinwood and Graceland avenues.
"At least it ended in a good way," he said. "I thank God that I own the place and was able to sell for a good price."
On Saturday, El Mexico bid farewell with a goodbye party. Customers enjoyed free cups of hot chocolate and pan dulce. A mariachi band was scheduled to perform in the afternoon.
"It's an appreciation day for my customers," said Gonzalez, who had people coming up to him every few minutes to wish him well.
One of them was Celina Ocampo, who came to say goodbye to the store she frequently visited as a child.
"They were wonderful owners," the Buffalo Grove resident said. "They were very helpful to the Mexican community."
Ocampo remembers when El Mexico was a little store with just enough room for a meat counter and two aisles of groceries.
At the time, the store sold items and certain types of meat that no one else provided in Des Plaines. Gonzalez said there were only a handful of similar businesses in the Northwest suburbs.
"I used to have customers come from Skokie, from Northbrook, from all over," Gonzalez said. "They came from out of town."
That success allowed Gonzalez to expand the business three times by taking over neighboring spaces. He went from renting space to owning the building.
During that time, customers like Pati Chavez kept coming.
"I have been coming here 32 years," said Chavez, who lives in Des Plaines. "I have been coming every week for the meat, for the tortillas, everything."
Another longtime customer, Shawn Killian, said he'll miss the store's hot food items, including corn topped with mayonnaise and spices.
"I have been coming here since I was like 6 or 7 years old," the Des Plaines resident said.
While he will miss his customers, Gonzalez said he won't miss the 90-hour workweeks.
"I feel kind of sad," the 69-year-old said. "On the other hand, I feel good because I'm going to have time off and be with my family."