Houston, Texas

Having grown far beyond its humble beginnings as a single shop, President Gaby Ortiz’s Mexican-style snacks and frozen treat manufacturer is now poised to conquer the Texas retail market.

Sweet treats have been part of Ortiz’s life since childhood. She grew up in her family’s ice cream production and distribution business in Jalisco, Mexico, so after immigrating to the U.S. and going through a divorce, opening her own artisanal Mexican ice cream and snack store was a natural path to follow.

Photos Jonathan Castner

“She was a mother looking out for her children,” says Yenny Guariato, the company’s operations director. “She got divorced, got custody of her children, and she was like, ‘What now?’ So, she started El Kiosko Frutas y Helados.”

A devout Catholic, Ortiz enlisted a priest to bless her store’s location. “The priest invited her to offer her product [outside the church] after mass on Sunday,” Guariato continues. “That’s how she made her advertising and got to the public.”

On a typical Sunday, Ortiz and her two children would sell as many as 400 elotes — a traditional Mexican snack made with corn, sour cream, mayonnaise, parmesan cheese, and chili — along with a variety of troles, a unique, water-based ice cream with a snow-like texture.

Since then, Ortiz’s enterprise has expanded substantially with 19 franchise locations in the Houston metropolitan area and one in San Antonio. The franchises are stocked with helados (ice cream), paletas
(popsicles), troles, ready-to-serve meats, and secret sauces, that are produced in El Kiosko’s 8,818-square-foot manufacturing facility.

“We have two areas of production,” Guariato says, “the ice cream factory and the kitchen. We are an artisanal manufacturing plant, so we do not have any automated processes or conveyors. Everything is manual. In the kitchen, we process ready-to-eat meats including shredded chicken in Gaby’s secret sauce, pork Jalisco, a beef stew known as picadillo, and grilled beef and steak that we use in our torta cubana at the stores. And we produce all our own chorizo. All of the recipes are Gaby’s”

The frozen treats are also made by hand. “The production assistants pour the mixes into the batch freezers and make sure they have the right time, temperature, and texture,” Guariato continues. “Then, when the product is ready, they fill the ice cream containers and follow the procedure to label them and put them in the walk-in freezers.”

El Kiosko Products uses only real fruit in its ice cream, popsicles, and troles. “We use limes, cantaloupes, strawberries, guava, bananas, pineapples, watermelon,” says Guariato. “We use just a very little preservatives. Because ice cream and troles produced the way we do — with natural ingredients — start to crystallize if they are stored for a long time, Gaby plans our production in a way that our products go to the stores freshly made. And when a consumer orders an ice cream, troles, or a torta, they experience the authentic flavor, the freshness, and the quality we are proud of.”

“It’s like homemade,” Ortiz says with Guariato as her translator. “It’s like the ice cream and troles taste in Mexico. When they are homesick, they can go to El Kiosko and feel like they are home.”

Challenges: Guariato says that supply chain challenges have been significant. “We are experiencing delays in deliveries of the products, most of which are coming from Mexico, because of borders, weather, and labor,” she explains. “Also, the prices are increasing exponentially because of gas prices. That has been affecting us.”

Labor is another challenge for the company. “You used to have seasonal people that you could pay a little bit above minimum wage,” Guariato says. “Now. nobody wants to work for less than $12 an hour here in Houston. That really impacts our cost structure. And to keep [employees] we’ve had to be creative. We have a diverse labor force, with people from Mexico, El Salvador, Venezuela like me, and people born here in the United States but with a Latin family. So, we have diverse celebrations for them throughout the year. We also respect them. We treat our employees like family.”

Opportunities: Though El Kiosko Products’ total sales revenues increased 10 percent in 2022 over the prior year, the company is exploring retail opportunities to diversify its sales channels. Ortiz is also looking to open more franchise stores.

“Right now, we’re working with five prospects,” Guariato says. “But that takes time.”

Needs: El Kiosko is currently looking for additional suppliers. “Gaby is loyal to her suppliers,” says Guariato. “She has kept relationships with suppliers for years. But we also have to be loyal to our customers, and we can’t fail to supply our products. So, we’re looking for suppliers, like maybe having an option two and an option three.”

Stability in construction and equipment costs is another pressing need. “Every month the construction and equipment prices are changing,” says Ortiz through her translator. “That is limiting our franchise business. We’re working on a new business model for franchise store construction with simplified store materials that are more economical but just as durable.”

Adds Guariato, “We’re also looking for distributors for our products here in Texas.”