After making the swift 10-minute walk down Devon Avenue from Loyola’s Lake Shore Campus, the quaint mini-market/restaurant would easily be missed if it wasn’t for its inviting, primary-colored awning.
To Francisca Aranda, 63, the canopy above La Unica (1515 W. Devon Ave.) serves as the unorthodox welcome mat of her second home. As the sole owner, she’s there every day from open to close: Monday through Sunday, 6 a.m.-9 p.m. Aranda makes the almost one hour drive there every morning from her home in Des Plaines, Illinois.
After splitting from her husband four years ago, Aranda has upkept the business as the sole owner, along with her 14 employees.
“When we [Aranda and her now ex-husband] first bought this place, I decided to work in the kitchen because I love being in there and I know how to cater Mexican cuisine,” Aranda said.
They bought the business in 2009 from Antonio Martinez, a Cuban man who opened La Unica in 1972. Martinez could not be immediately reached for this comment. Back then, it was less than half of the size it is now, having only “the tiniest grocery section” of Cuban goods, she said.
Today, La Unica takes in products from countries all over South and Central America. Their “caféteria” section, which is a small restaurant, contains Mexican, Peruvian and Colombian cuisine.
Ivory Saez, 19, has been working at La Unica as a waitress for a little over a year after meeting Aranda through a family friend.
Saez said her favorite part about serving at this business was “seeing the different people from different backgrounds come in.”
Her coworker, Elesa Guevara, 35, says that her heart lies in the kitchen at La Unica. Above all else, Guevara said that she loves to cook Mexican and Peruvian food.
The love put into their cuisine is evident, as the “caféteria” takes in calls for food orders every 15 minutes or so, whether it was a phone order, or someone coming in for a quick bite to eat.
“Even during the pandemic when the food mart was closed, we were still able to stay afloat through the amount of deliveries we were making,” Aranda said.
The frequency of deliveries was so consistent during lockdown that it barely differed from the number of orders they saw in a pre-pandemic world, according to Aranda.
An oasis for many, La Unica continues to serve Rogers Park through its friendly faces, nostalgic cuisine and its diverse array of products.
A devoted customer for 20 years, John Ramirez said he goes to La Unica to buy Colombian groceries that his wife, Luz, misses from home.
“They always carry the ingredients for ‘sancocho de gallina,’ which is one of my wife’s favorite dishes from home,” John said. “I know I can come here and find everything I need in order to make it.”
When accompanying her husband, Luz browses the shelves adjacent to the cash register, which carry all of her favorite sodas from Colombia. Names like Colombiana and Postobon are sentimental to her, as it reminds her of a time when her mother, Flor, would visit the store with her to choose from an array of grape, orange and apple sodas.
Today, the amount of LatinX-owned businesses have increased significantly since the 80’s, said Ramirez. However, one of the aspects about La Unica that keeps her business throughout the years is the ever-present nostalgia she gets from walking down its aisles.
“My mom loved coming here while she was still with us, especially since they had all of the sweets that reminded her of Colombia,” Luz said. “When I come here, it brings a smile to my face to know that I’m walking down the same aisle that she did, happy to know that home isn’t as far away as it seems.”
Some interviews for this story were conducted in Spanish and translated.