Salty, crumbly, queso fresco dusts the velvety dark enchiladas de mole at Pilsen’s family-run 5 Rabanitos. It accents thousands of tacos as they fly out of Wicker Park mainstay Big Star’s kitchen. And it’s a key addition to the avocado cucumber salad at the swanky downtown spot Barrio. You might take this delicious finishing touch for granted. But the company behind the cheese at Chicago’s most popular Mexican restaurants has a deeply rooted, important story to tell.
Gilberto Villaseñor II remembers rolling around the stainless steel milk containers at the V&V Supremo cheese-making factory in the early 1960s. He was just a kid helping out at his father’s newly formed cheese company in Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood.
“I remember the smell so well,” Villaseñor says. “It was a different world then to what it is now.”
Back in the ’60s, Francisca and Gilberto Villaseñor, two immigrants from Mexico City, decided to take their chance on the American dream by creating a company that specialized in the fresh cheeses from the countrysides of Central Mexico, the cheese that the city’s Mexican immigrants were used to eating. It is a workhorse in Mexican cuisine, yet during the company’s founding, the cheese was hard to come by in Chicago. The fresh cow’s milk cheese, with a salty flavor and crumbling texture, is a key component in refried beans, tacos, enchiladas, and countless other widely consumed Mexican dishes.
“My dad understood that most people out here were first-generation immigrants,” Gilberto Villaseñor II, 47, says. “They still had very strong memories of what it was to eat fresh homemade queso fresco. He basically said that we are going to make a product that’s as close to that as possible.”
While the company has grown significantly, from a tiny three-person shop to a massive operation that rang in well over $100 million in sales this past year, the mission remains the same: Still family-owned and -operated, V&V strives to give Chicago’s immigrant communities a taste of home.
Of the original founders, only Francisca Villaseñor, Gilberto’s wife, is alive today. At 85, she still comes around for yearly holiday parties.
“We are in the food business, but we are also in the memory-cultivating business,” Gilberto Villaseñor II says. “I think especially for people who are not in their homeland and are in a foreign country, to be able to taste something that really reminds them of their childhood, being with their parents, being at home, some notion of something intimate, that’s very powerful.”
It was the early 1960s when Ignacio Villaseñor finally convinced his brother-in-law Gilberto Villaseñor to pack up his bags and head north from Mexico City to Chicago. Ignacio had been living in the States for a few years before as part of the bracero program that the United States set up in the ’40s to allow Mexican nationals to do farm work in the United States.
The program, which was an agreement made between the U.S. and Mexico, allowed 4.6 million Mexican citizens to take temporary agricultural work in the United States between 1942 and 1964. It was and still remains the nation’s largest experiment with guest workers.
When Gilberto Villaseñor joined his brother-in-law at his flat in Chicago, he found work initially at a TV assembly company and later at a slaughterhouse.
“He didn’t like it, but that was all the work he could get at the time,” Gilberto Villaseñor II says.
One day, while living in the Back of the Yards neighborhood, Ignacio and Gilberto overheard a man talking about his love of making Mexican candies that reminded him of home, and they convinced him to join them while embarking on their latest hustle: making and selling candies.
Things were going great until the man left for Mexico the first winter of production.
“My dad says, ‘What do you mean? We just started the business,” Villaseñor II says, relaying the old conversation. “The guy says, ‘I never stay here for the winter, I’m going back to Mexico — that’s just the way it is.’” The brothers were no candy experts, and without their partner, the business started to spiral out of control.
That is, until the brothers began to experiment with milk. One of the candies in their line utilized a lot of it, and those experiments led them to make queso fresco the way they had it back home.
Gilberto Villaseñor II was 3 years old when the family turned to cheese. The original facility was in Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood at 47th and Ashland Avenue, but the company quickly outgrew that and moved into a small storefront on 18th Street which was previously a house that the family bought and renovated to handle cheese production.
“They were in heaven when they bought that,” Gilberto Villaseñor II, the co-owner and self-described visionary for the company, remembers of the time his family moved to their current facility at 21st and Damen: a 40,000-square-foot space, where operations remain today.
“He didn’t know the words ‘I can’t do it,’” Gilberto Villaseñor II says of his father. “He came here, he didn’t speak a word of English, but he knew how to speak business. He knew engaging and conducting and doing things in a way where he created value. He didn’t get loans. It was all hard work, putting money aside, reinvesting and putting back into the business.”
The business — which has grown from selling queso fresco on consignment to local grocers and neighborhood families to a countrywide operation that has more than 50 traditional Mexico food products — has found a way to stay community focused in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood.
“We employed people from the neighborhood. We employ people from the community. We continue to do so now,” Gilberto Villaseñor II says.
There are currently 300 employees working at V&V Supremo, many of whom have been there for over 30 years. Laura Orozco, who has been with the company for 15 years, works in the test kitchen whipping up recipes for publication on the company website. So far she has helped create more than 400, and Gilberto Villaseñor II tastes every one of them. What Orozco finds most comforting in showing up to work every day is the family atmosphere that she says is palpable in every inch of the operation.
“For me it was really interesting because even though I lived here in Chicago and I used to pass by this shop, I never thought I would end up working here,” she says. “They treat you like you are part of the family. I think that’s very important. If you don’t feel comfortable where you are at as a worker, then you don’t belong there.”
Gilberto Villaseñor II hopes that other immigrants find inspiration in his family’s story of hustle.
“Being an immigrant here in this country is a mindset,” Gilberto Villaseñor II says. “There is so much opportunity. It is all a matter of what do you believe you can do. Do you expect people to give you things, or do you expect to go out and strive?”