Jorge and Lupe Perez have been serving donuts, pizza, and sandwiches in Chico’s Oven’s walk-in window at the 83rd and in Houston for a few months now – one of the first Wednesdays they’ve been open, a steady stream of customers. ordered peanuts. Top up donuts, freshly baked pizza slices and sandwiches with toppings stacked on top of a still steaming bolillo.
But their pan bolillo is more than the base of a turkey sandwich. This is the foundation of a comeback story that has been brewing for nearly three decades.
From 1977 to 1994, Jorge Perez Jr. – better known as Chico – learned the ins and outs of running the family neighborhood grocery store and bakery in that same building.
“Learn to weigh flour and cut eggs, do whatever it takes to start the dough in the morning. Put away the goods, tear up the boxes, throw away the garbage. It was our life, ”Perez recalls. “From a perspective of growing up in this type of environment, it was wonderful because we got to know everyone in the neighborhood. We made a lot of friends.
Perez’s mother, Francisca, ran the store. His father, Jorge Sr., divided his time between baking Mexican bread and pastries and shift work at US Steel.
“My father was a metalworker, he worked at US Steel a few blocks from here. But his job as a baker is what he learned in Mexico. And when he came here, we came from Mexico, he taught me how to cook. And so that became part of our extra income for our family because in the late 1970s there were quite a few layoffs. “
These layoffs had a visible impact on the South Chicago community, Perez recalls.
“Growing up, we saw changes happen when the steel mill closed. You have seen families fall apart. You’ve seen people leave town or leave that part of the neighborhood altogether. And then you had an increase in gang violence, ”he said. “This is largely due to the fact that the economic base of the neighborhood has disappeared. “
Perez bought the building from his father in 1996 and started a family there with his wife, Lupe. As he pursued a career in economic development, his belief that small businesses are essential ingredients in building healthy communities grew. And now what he sees in South Chicago is increasing opportunities.
“It was the first port of entry for Mexican Americans 100 years ago. It was the start of a kind of new era, ”Perez said. “We continue to grow as a population. And so there are always these needs for home ownership or housing and other types of amenities. I think we are at the beginning, hopefully for the next 100 years. “
In July 2021, the family bakery was reborn under the name Chico’s Oven. With their now teenage sons participating on weekends and limited hours during the week, the Perez family offers freshly fried yeast donuts, hand-made pizzas, and sandwiches made on a bolillo dish baked with the same recipe. and in the same Jorge Sr. oven used so many years ago.
“One of the things I absolutely wanted to do in the bakery setting is to instill a new era, a sense of new retailing, but also to be able to deepen this notion of creating a market where there is no there is no market, ”he said. “How to integrate this into a community development model? And I want this business to be the start.
Perez refers to history to demonstrate why he has faith in the revival of South Chicago.
“This business has always been in a very key strategic location, the Metra station one block away and now a high school across the street, a land park right next to us. The reason the industrialists came here, isn’t it, is because of the location of this community and for a good 89 years it has worked pretty well. I still believe that due to the location of this community it still bodes very well.
As a development professional, Perez says he’s ready to put his dough where his mouth is.
“For the past 27 years, I’ve told everyone my goal is to reopen my family’s business. People pontificate on entrepreneurship, small business, people have talked about it. I don’t necessarily do that; I want to show them how to do it. I bet my house on it. I want to show people that it is possible.