They are as ubiquitous throughout Mexico and parts of the US as Burger King. A sight of them from across the street on a sunny day spurs feelings of having reached an oasis in the middle of the dessert. They all look alike and yet are somewhat different from one another. And they all offer something in common: one of Mexico’s favorite, time-honored year-around sweet treats. We are, of course, talking about paletas, or ice pops, and La Michoacana, the amazing conglomerate of family-owned, mostly non-franchised shops that sell them.
Known in the US and Canada as popsicles due to the popularity of the eponymous trade brand, paletas are water or milk-based frozen snacks on a stick, available in a multitude of flavors. While their true origin is uncertain, it is well documented that California-based Francis William Epperson, a lemonade salesman, popularized them after patenting the concept of “frozen ice on a stick” in 1923.
Although the connection with Mexico is also uncertain, one of the prevailing stories describes a man by the name of Ignacio Alcazar, who after a trip to the US in the early 1940s, returned to his home town of Tocumbo—a small farming community in the state of Michoacan—with the idea of manufacturing so-called paletas using locally grown fruit. Other versions claim that Alcazar was employed by Rafael Malfavon Villanueva, who had started a lime ice pop business in said town. Having stolen a considerable amount of pesos from his employer, Alcazar ran away to Mexico City where he began opening paleterías, or ice pop shops, of his own. Regardless, the paleta business began flourishing under the name La Michoacana in both locations.
Little by little, family members of the shop owners began learning the trade and opening La Michoacana shops throughout Mexico using standardized logos and signage. However, although the shops shared the name, they were hardly a franchise. There was no headquarters or central accounting, nor strategic development plans. In addition, copyright and trademark procedures had not been firmly established in Mexico at the time. Since most of the shop owners had familial ties, they shared trade secrets and lent each other money when times were tough.
There have been several efforts to bring La Michoacana shops under a single franchise, but most have been unsuccessful. Nowadays, there are way too many trademark applications related to the brand for the law system to favor any single one. And although there are a handful of “important-looking” websites with the Michoacana name, offering franchise opportunities, most operate on their own terms, honoring the look and feel of the other shops.
Easily identifiable by their logo, most La Michoacana shops offer not only ice pops, but also ice cream in many different flavors, along with aguas frescas. Concerned about their health, wary foreigners can shop for their favorite flavors trusting that the products are prepared and shops maintained with the highest standards of cleanliness and hygiene.
Today, a town in Mexico has to be truly small for it not to have at least one La Michoacana shop. In Tocumbo, Michoacan, the ice pop tradition continues with an annual ice pop fair celebrated December 25-30 since 1989. Attendees can enjoy over 50 different flavors, from the traditional lime strawberry and vanilla to the exotic alcoholic varieties prepared with mezcal, tequila and beer. By the way, you know you’ve reached the town thanks to the enormous and welcoming ice pop monument at its entrance.