Along Clark Street in the bustling northwest corner of Rogers Park lies Dulceria La Fiesta (7053 N. Clark St.), a party supply and candy store offering a one-of-a-kind service: handmade piñatas.
Customers can ask for a custom design or choose from other styles such as Disney characters or a five-pointed star — a traditional design for Las Posadas, a Latin-American holiday celebrated at Christmas time. Every piñata is handmade in the store using recycled cardboard boxes and can range from $15 to $40, according to store owner and piñata-maker Reyna Gonzalez.
Despite the festive nature of the shop, the story of its founding is more complicated, Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez, 45, was born in Mexico before she and her family immigrated to Chicago when she was young. She was raised in Rogers Park — often going to church at St. Jerome Parish, just a few blocks from where her store would eventually be located — before moving to Edgewater when she was a teenager.
For 20 years Gonzalez said she worked in accounting before deciding to start her own business.
“I decided I wanted to start something different, to have something of my own,” she said.
She said she quit her job in early November 2018 and Dulceria La Fiesta opened later that month — with strong business for 21 days until a devastating fire caused a “total loss” and the store had to rebuild. While Gonzalez took that time to teach herself to make her signature piñatas, the store then faced another setback: the COVID-19 pandemic.
Aside from the tissue paper decor that adorns each piñata, each one is made with a cardboard skeleton, Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez first starts by stripping cardboard, wetting it and separating pieces before sculpting the body of whatever design she’s making. She uses inflatable balls and other objects for molds when assembling the body, then leaves it to dry before adding the decorations and final touches — a week-long process Gonzalez said she “learned from scratch” specifically for the store.
“I wanted to custom make them myself [and] add something different to the area,” Gonzalez said.
Many of the boxes come from a typical piñata stuffer: Mexican candy — which features flavors different from the standard American pantheon of chocolate and sugar-based confectionery.
Mexican candy often balances the four S’s — salty, sweet, sour and spicy — in one bite, using mango, tamarind and chamoy. Pulparindo, a tamarind-based candy in mango or watermelon flavors, is one of the best sellers, Gonzalez said.
Dulceria La Fiesta opened its doors again July 11, 2020 and despite early success in the fall, business has slowed to “maybe one customer a day,” Gonzalez said.
She said she hopes for business to improve, especially after getting help from the Rogers Park Business Alliance (RPBA) in updating the store’s social media and online presence.
Rebeca Fernandez — the bilingual program manager for the RPBA — said despite setbacks, Dulceria La Fiesta didn’t qualify for traditional loans or COVID-19 assistance such as Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) or other Small Business Administration (SBA) loans.
Instead, the RPBA — which received funding last year to help develop small businesses — helped come up with a plan, including hiring consultants to assist with upgrading the store’s point-of-sale (POS) system, set up a website and train Gonzalez in running the store’s social media, Fernandez said.
Belia Rodriguez — president of the RPBA and a small-business owner herself — said many smaller Rogers Park businesses are owned by Latinx, Black or other marginalized communities, and the pandemic has particularly affected them. Black and Latinx residents make up around 47 percent of the Rogers Park neighborhood, according to data from the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning — a government planning organization.
“[Businesses] struggle more with technology and social media,” Rodriguez said. “When the pandemic hit, some stores couldn’t do anything outside of [using] GrubHub.”
Rodriguez — who owns a web-developing company — helped get Dulceria La Fiesta’s website synced-up with the rest of the store so she could start taking online orders. The store is also making updates to the front with assistance from the RPBA, Fernandez said.
While businesses are struggling, Rodriguez said the Rogers Park community members are key to keeping them alive.
“[Rogers Park] is very engaged, it’s an active and supportive community,” Rodriguez said. “Everyone is trying to help local businesses, they just need to know they’re there.”
Fernandez said besides patronizing local businesses, people can help out by sharing their experiences on social media and spreading the word.
Getting customers in the door is the hardest part of Gonzalez’s 12-hour day, she said. She said if her store survives, she hopes to start expanding to other neighborhoods.
“I’d hate to close sooner than expected, but I’m holding on and trying to do what I can to stay afloat,” Gonzalez said.