Article by Jackie Serrato
Any mexicano that grew up in Chicago can identify the Mexican-style shingles of El Nopal Bakery and its blinking letters that lit up like a snake. Back in the day, this place was magical to a kid. And a space of cultural acceptance and a feeling of home for recently arrived Mexicans.
It’s been devastating to the community that one of the most established Mexican-owned businesses, El Nopal Bakery, has closed its Little Village doors. Since July people have been talking about the sign on the window at 3648 W. 26th Street that announces their retirement.
Only three years ago, El Nopal closed its Pilsen store on 1844 S. Blue Island due to the economy and “lots of other reasons” according to their Facebook account. But most of their clientele expected the bakery to centralize their operations in Little Village and was reluctant to see the end coming.
El Nopal’s 1974 Little Village inauguration (Facebook/Frank Bonilla)
Few customers know that before moving to Pilsen, El Nopal first opened shop in 1954 on 330 S. Halsted, when Mexican families still populated the West Loop. They moved to Blue Island Avenue in 1960 and opened the 26th Street location in 1974.
Husband and wife, Francisco and Celia Bonilla, met in a Mexican bakery in San Antonio, Texas, which inspired their business vision here.
A baker since he was a boy, Francisco knew how to make 80 varieties of pan mexicano. People drove in and traveled from afar for his heart-shaped polvorón cookies or “Hojarascas” as Celia called them.
Crowds would spill out into the street on Halloween and Three Kings Day. And El Nopal’s marquee sign was a landmark in every Mexican Independence Day parade in Little Village.
As civic leaders, the Bonillas sponsored teams and regularly donated to churches and community charities. They were often pictured with local politicians like Harold Washington, Jesus “Chuy” Garcia and Luis Gutierrez, as well as both Mexican and American celebrities.
Since 1998, the bakery was a member of the Little Village Chamber of Commerce. It was featured in Univision’s Despierta America and the Food Network’s Sandwich King.
Hojarascas (Yelp/Jackie M.)
The famed panadero passed away in March 2009. Then Mrs. Celia passed away in February 2013, leaving the business to the care of their only son, Frank, and their nephew and manager, Gus.
“Since my cousin Gus, who is like a brother to me, will be retiring soon, I’d be alone,” Frank said. “I prefer to sell the name so El Nopal can go on.”
Michals Realty, the same realtor that sold the 18th Street store to pie and coffee shop owners from the North Side is now selling the Nopal name and recipes for $560,000. (Update Aug. 14: the price has been lowered to $449,000)
The Little Village storefront is also available for rent.
“My parents were the bakery,” Frank said. “We thank our customers for their patronage and their loyalty. It meant a lot to us.”
La Familia Bonilla (Facebook/Frank Bonilla)
See more historical photos on Facebook