When Martha and Luis Morales decided to open a business in the Ninth Street District, they weren’t thinking about ice cream. Initially, they planned to open a Hispanic-style shish kabob restaurant. They soon discovered, however, that the space they hoped to rent in a historic building on Perry Street wasn’t suitable for an industrial kitchen. So, they fell back on something they’d loved since their childhoods: frozen treats.
In El Salvador, Martha and Luis grew up with ice cream. Martha has fond memories of her father making frozen bolis (a bit like an American push-pop) and selling them in the neighborhood. When Martha and Luis had to pivot their business dream away from shish kabobs and towards ice-cream, Martha realized she knew quite a bit about the ice cream business from watching her parents work as a child. Luis, too, has a background in frozen fare. As a young musician playing trumpet for the El Salvador Symphony Orchestra, he lived in Michoacán, Mexico. During his four years there, Luis learned to make the popsicles (paletas) so popular in Michoacán.
Martha and Luis moved to Durham in 1999. They briefly relocated to Boston, but returned to Durham in 2002. After that, Martha says, “Durham became home.” Martha welcomes all the recent change in Durham. “It’s really good to see people sitting outside relaxing and having fun,” she says of the new business boom in the Bull City. In Durham, she says, people can “find a place to be themselves.” Pincho Loco is meant to be just that kind of place — a relaxed, family-friendly environment where people can enjoy a treat or a beverage and relax with friends.
In Pincho Loco’s crowd-pleasing concept, the American South meets Latin America. The ice cream flavors speak to their southern influence with flavors like Butter Pecan and Banana Pudding. The paletas, with flavors that showcase their Latin American roots, are often made from fruits like guanabana, mamey, and nance — common in Central and South American, but not here in the United States.
On their location near Ninth Street, Martha says it seemed “meant to be.” The shop is central to their kids’ schools and in a neighborhood they enjoy. They were at Bruegger’s Bagels when they first saw the “For Rent” sign in the window at 1918 Perry Street. By the time they reached out to the landlord, several people had expressed interest, and the Morales’ feel grateful that the lease fell to them. Martha and Luis make the ice cream themselves in an off-site location. The trick to really good ice cream, Martha says, is “a lot of love and a lot of time.” You have to use fresh ingredients, test the product, and know that, sometimes, you’re going to fail. Martha admits she didn’t realize how much work it would be to run a business before Pincho Loco opened its doors in July of 2017. Still, she and Luis love working for themselves. “Every day is different,” she says, “and every day is a challenge, but also a blessing.”
So far, Pincho Loco has been exclusively a family affair. Martha and Luis work in the shop nearly every day. Their children, Sofia and Daniel, help out on the weekends. Even Martha’s mother helps out in the shop when she is visiting from El Salvador. Martha says that her children enjoy the work. Sometimes, they get frustrated or overwhelmed when the shop gets busy, but at the end of the day they feel a sense of pride. Ultimately, Martha feels it is a good learning experience for them.
Next time you stop by Pincho Loco for a popsicle, ice-cream cone, piñata, or ice cream cupcake (yes, that’s a thing!), prepare to be greeted with a smile. Martha’s business philosophy is simple but profound: be nice to people. Martha and her family love welcoming Durham neighbors into their shop, and they treat their customers like friends.
When they’re not working, here’s what Martha and Luis might be up to:
Supporting their kids: Sofia is a violinist studying at the North Carolina School of Science and Math and Daniel plays guitar and trumpet at Durham School of the Arts. They love attending their children’s concerts and supporting school events.
Spending time at home: The family enjoys working in the garden (sunflowers are Martha’s favorite), and working on home improvement projects.
Enjoying the arts: Martha has been reading Gabriel García Márquez. Luis tries to play his trumpet when he has free time.
Merchant of the Month features are written by Kate Van Dis Creative Content.