Three generations of Sanchezes staff this popular Mexican corn stand.
On a main thoroughfare under the grandstand at The Wisconsin State Fair sits an unassuming tent with “El Jefe” printed along the top and bottom. Workers in green shirts, with an easy chemistry between them, greet customers, handing over cups of corn and an interesting history if you dig a little more. For Mexican immigrant Salvador Sanchez, his wildly popular Mexican corn stand is a business that has grown its roots right at home.
El Jefe Roasted Corn started some thirty years ago, when Sanchez, the father of eight from the state of Jalisco, Mexico, wanted to earn more on top of his, at times, fluctuating income. With a small army at home, he employed his family at the corn stand, where they served it Mexican-style at various festivals around Milwaukee.
As the Sanchez family described it, Mexican-style corn includes butter, mayonnaise, Parmesan cheese and other toppings such as hot sauce, cayenne pepper and lime that make it different from the plain-Jane corn most Americans are used to consuming. But to be successful at the festivals, the Sanchez family knew you had to be different. Cue the corn in a cup. After watching street vendors in Mexico shave corn from the cob into a cup for customers to enjoy, they decided to pocket the technique and bring it back to Milwaukee. The outcome: an enormous success.
It’s not unusual for lines at the family’s stand to be 30 minutes long. Still, people wait. The Sanchezes are accustomed to the long days and fast service that await them at the festivals they attend. Perhaps the most grueling job is the corn shaving station, manned by two people at all times. Almost as rhythmic as a dance, it’s a constant labor that takes a skilled hand and keen eye to master. In the small space, the family maneuvers around one another to get each of their jobs done with pace and precision.
“It’s a little space but a lot happens in here,” notes daughter Lupe.
With three generations working under the tent at any given time, Sanchez’s business model is one that’s easy to follow. It starts with his family and ends with his customers. Without the support of his wife, children and grandkids, the stand would quite literally have to close. Even the spouses and partners of family members have to buy in.
“We’re a close family,” says another daughter, Patricia. “If you’re going to be in the family, you’re going to be in the family.”
To their friends and acquaintances, the Sanchez family’s close-knit bond is an identifying factor. In the tent they talk quickly among themselves, switching fluidly from Spanish to English. Salvador makes the customer a priority, and knows he’s found a sweet spot in where he does his business.
“People are happy with what we are doing,” says Salvador. “I think we’ve been trying to serve them the best as we can.”
From festival to festival, the routine remains the same. Corn, customers and, of course, kin. The Sanchez family has Mexican Fiesta and Indian Summer to look forward to yet this summer and fall. With years of experience and tradition under their belt, the popularity of one small corn stand is bursting at the seams.