A Sweet Business
Rene Flores Cruz arrived in the United States 22 years ago from Oaxaca, Mexico. At 15 years old he was alone in a new country with no family and no experience. After 17 years as a cook at a chain restaurant in Columbus, his life changed when he accepted a job as a server at Vaccaro’s Mexican Restaurant, one of eight restaurants owned by Jose Torres.
Jose noticed Rene’s work ethic and willingness to learn. Two years later he recruited him as a managing partner for a new project called Diamonds. Rene, now a manager at Diamonds Ice Cream, says that this opportunity represented everything he thought possible when he came to the United States.
“When you are working for someone else, it is hard to advance,” says Rene. “But now, as a partner in this business, I am still working hard but also making more decisions.”
Diamonds was a shift for Jose. It is his first dessert-focused concept, although Diamonds also serves a few traditional Mexican savory dishes, the most popular being elote, hot corn on the cob slathered in lime crema, salty cotija cheese and chile pepper.
Yet the bedrock of Diamonds is the seemingly endless display of fresh fruit salads, ice creams and popsicles called paletas, which translates literally to “short stick.” At one end of the counter are rows of sliced fresh pineapple, melons, berries, guava, papaya, cucumbers, avocados and mangos. These can be served either bionica (with cream) or with chamoy, a spicy-sweet condiment imported from Mexico.
Rene explains that they buy only the freshest and highest-quality fruit available since it is the foundation of most of their products.
For example, although frozen passion fruit purée would be more efficient and more cost-effective, the flavor and quality simply wasn’t as good as finding the fresh fruit.
All of the ice creams and paletas are made in house. Rene oversees the preparation of at least 20 flavors of ice cream and 70 types of popsicles in a kitchen smaller than most American bedrooms. It contains a single ice cream machine and a small pantry full of imported ingredients such as tamarind and hibiscus.
Jose’s paletas are more luscious than the average popsicle. Diamonds uses a higher-than-average ratio of fresh fruit to sugar, which creates a creamier texture and brighter, more pronounced fruit flavors.
Many paletas include both hand-puréed and chopped whole fruit, all done on site. Flavors range from the familiar, such as strawberry kiwi and blackberries and cream, to more traditional Mexican, such as pine nut and mango chili. On a gray, unseasonably cold day, the strawberries and cream flavor tastes like summer on a stick. For those customers who prefer savory treats, Diamonds also serves pico de gallo and avocado popsicles.
Jose came to the United States from Guadalajara 28 years ago and worked in his brother-in-law’s restaurant for 10 years, learning the business. He relocated to Columbus after visiting a cousin and not only feeling an instant connection with the city, but also seeing an opportunity to expand Mexican cuisine options.
He says that while the Mexican community has grown exponentially since he arrived, he finds work for whoever applies. For those who work hard, he provides many opportunities for growth. His nephew, Sergio Munoz, has worked with his uncle since he was 13. He talks at length about his years of experience working for his uncle.
“Jose has grown a real family business. We work hard but he makes sure we can advance. I waited tables at his restaurants for four years while I got my business and accounting degree at Ohio State, and now I’m back full-time to help grow the business. Jose inspires a lot of loyalty among the staff.”
Rene agrees. “Jose helps kids in the Mexican community by giving them their first job and teaching them good customer service skills. He makes the work enjoyable and teaches them transferable skills that they will use in all their future jobs.”
Jose did not initially think a paletas concept would be successful. Pausing for a quick frozen treat through the day didn’t seem to be part of American’s cultural cuisine, particularly in a climate that was cold for much of the year. But a nephew insisted that they visit a similar store in Chicago, where it seemed to be working. Jose promised his nephew that if he could get a visa and come to Columbus, he would give it a try, thinking it would take years, if ever, to secure the paperwork. He was dumbfounded when his nephew announced he had his visa and was ready to get started. Jose kept his promise and realized that it was a low-overhead enterprise.
“We don’t need a huge kitchen. The freezer displays and storage are the biggest expense. And we can make 250 paletas in 10 minutes.”
He recently opened his third location, which is attached to one of his restaurants, making it easy for customers to step next door for dessert after lunch or dinner.
In Mexico, paletas are sold out of a traveling cart on the street. Jose and Rene plan to add this strategy to their brick-and-mortar stores, and are applying for permits to bring paletas to farmers markets and festivals and continue to introduce one of Mexico’s culinary obsessions to the wider Columbus community.
Diamonds Ice Cream
5461 Bethel Sawmill Center | 614.718.2980
3870 Main St. | Hilliard | 614.971.5490
2285 W. Dublin Granville Rd., Ste. 123 | Worthington | 614.987.7999