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Honduran king of Italian ices

Alfredo Thiebaud painting the floor in the basement of his Bronx-based factory. Photo: Alexander Besant

Never tired, Alfredo Thiebaud painting the floor in the basement of his Bronx-based Italian ice factory. Photo: Alexander Besant

Alfredo Thiebaud cannot sit still. His legs shake and his eyes constantly scan the hallway in front of his door looking for something else to do besides sitting around answering questions about his life. He exudes all the restlessness of a new business owner, except that he is not one. He has been at it for years.

Thiebaud has run the Bronx-based Delicioso Coco Helado since he founded the company in 1978 when he was just 39. Now 70, he is still just as involved in the day-to-day management of the company that makes Italian ices, a sugary fruit purée like sorbet, as he was when it first began 32 years ago.

“He’s always been hands on and very protective of his products,” said Sophia Thiebaud, Alfredo’s daughter and vice president of operations at Delicioso. “He’s 70 years old and still works seven days a week, more than 10 hours a day.”

Alfredo Thiebaud is short and stocky with the thick fingers of a manual laborer. He wears jeans that are covered in paint and dust that look as if he has just renovated a house. He says few words, and whenever he is asked about his personal life, he quickly moves the conversation back to his business. Though he says he is not supposed to eat sugar because of hyperglycemia, Thiebaud sits at his desk snacking on raisin bran (which, according to his daughter, he believes does not contain sugar) and fruit-flavored yogurt.

At the first opportunity, he jumps out of his seat and suggests that his daughter Sophia would probably be more suited to answer questions. He calls for her and quickly disappears into the basement of the factory with painting equipment in hand.

Thiebaud grew up in Tela, Honduras, a sleepy port town that grew prosperous through the export of tropical fruits. Thiebaud’s grandfather was French, and came to Honduras to work as a manager of the then-burgeoning railway system that carried agricultural products from the interior to the coast for export. His father worked as an executive in the United Fruit Company, an American firm that controlled large expanses of agricultural land and key industries in Latin American and Caribbean countries that became known as “banana republics.”

In 1960, when Thiebaud was 21, his uncle, a merchant marine living in Queens, helped his nephew immigrate to the United States, a country his family believed, would offer him more economic opportunities than Honduras. “My uncle gave me the papers to come to this country,” he said. “It was easier back then. They needed workers.” Thiebaud arrived in New York and began work at a storm-window manufacturing business in Mount Vernon for a dollar an hour. After four years at the factory, he left to work as a welder and finally a carpenter for a trade union.

With savings from his previous jobs, Thiebaud started Delicioso Coco Helado in 1978, selling homemade Italian ices from a pushcart in the Bronx. Thiebaud said that though New York City was full of Hispanics, their food, especially the ices that Thiebaud enjoyed as a child, was still not readily available.

As his sales grew, he hired a few more vendors, eventually quitting the vending business to focus exclusively on producing.  “We started in the Bronx and little by little, we grew,” said Thiebaud. “Then our vendors started going to Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens.” Delicioso Coco Helado is now one of the largest employers in the neighborhood with more than 30 seasonal employees producing the icy treat. Thiebaud also supplies over 200 independent vendors who are ubiquitous on street corners around the New York City during the summer.

Delicioso vendors begin arriving at the factory around nine in the morning to pick up their merchandise for the day. The vendors, mostly from Latin America, line up quietly as they receive their supply of the frozen fruit purée in tubs. In the evening, vendors return with any unsold product to store in the Delicioso’s warehouse until the next morning.

Vendors are responsible for their individual permits and are free to go wherever they want in the city to sell the product. Thiebaud will not supply a vendor who does not have a permit. The politics of permits can be a tough business in New York, as Thiebaud knows. In the early 1990s, Thiebaud briefly had his own permit suspended by the city for illegally supplying vendors with permits instead of having to get them through City Hall. Though he was never accused of selling the permits, he acknowledged that he did give them to vendors who sold his products. “I used to give it to the vendor to sell the products,” he said. “I gave them permits to create jobs. I never took advantage and sold the permits.”

Many of the vendors are Latin Americans who come year after year to New York to work for the summer and then return home for the winter. When his vendors leave for the season, Thiebaud continues to work in his factory, fixing the carts and doing yearly maintenance.

“In the winter I have to fix the pushcarts or do repairs,” said Thiebaud. “There is always something to do.”

According to his daughter Sophia, Thiebaud gives away thousands of dollars in products ever year to support local charities and churches. “He definitely believes in giving back,” Thiebaud’s daughter said. “He loves the Bronx and wants to do whatever he can to improve it.”

Despite chances to relocate during periods of unrest in the neighborhood or to move to less expensive facilities, Thiebaud has always refused. “When everyone else was leaving the Bronx he stayed,” said Sophia Thiebaud. “He knew the Bronx would come back.”

While at work painting the basement of the factory later that day, Thiebaud suddenly seemed more at ease talking. He lamented the unstable political situation in Honduras and was happy that former left-wing President Manuel Zelaya had been ousted in a recent coup. “Honduras didn’t need another Chavez.” He also expressed doubt about President Barack Obama and about the changes taking place under his administration. When asked if he would retire, he stopped working for a moment and answered earnestly. “Of course I am not going to retire. What would I do every day?”

Posted in Bronx Life, Food, Food and Beyond, Special ReportsComments (1)