IRMA’S SWEETE SHOPPE
By G. Romero Wendorf
Due to illness, my wife and I couldn’t attend our dear friend Irma Elizondo’s 30th anniversary celebration last week in downtown Pharr. For that, we’re sorry, because in life, the true friends one has can really only be counted on one hand. The ones who will be there for you no matter what. Two hands if you’re very lucky.
For my wife and I, Irma’s been one of those true friends ever since we moved back to the Valley in 1993, after leaving for a brief spell in ’90, and bought the newspaper. So it’s with great pleasure that we wish her and her family a very happy 30th anniversary.
The only sad part to this happy occasion is that our great and good friend, Felipe “Pipe” Elizondo, master storyteller of tall tales and dirty jokes, which I could never reprint in the newspaper, a character larger than life, not to mention Irma’s one and only soul mate, isn’t here to help us celebrate the occasion. But through the continued success of Irma’s Sweete Shoppe, Pipe’s memory lives on.
Here’s how Irma's story began:
Elizondo grew up in Pharr in the 1950s and early ‘60s, back when nobody locked their front door and the hottest thing going was a Friday night date at the Texas Theatre.
“But not a lot of people had much money back then” she says. “So there weren’t a lot of trips to see a movie.”
What she spent her spare time doing, though, was learning the baking secrets passed down by her mother.
“Even growing up, I was considered the baker in the family,” she says.
Funny how life works, though, because after getting married and starting a family, owning and operating a bakery was the furthest thing from her mind.
“Retail, that’s what I wanted to get into,” she says.
So, when her husband, Felipe, was transferred up to Lubbock as part of an insurance-company promotion in the 1970s, she signed on with K-Mart.
“I started out with its human resources department. But after we moved back to the Valley, I was assistant manager over at the old K-Mart in Edinburg.”
If you know the retail trade, she says, the hours are a killer.
“At least they were back then. Some days, 17 hours straight; most days, a lot more than 12.”
So she started talking to her husband, and they agreed, why not start our own bakery?
“The year was 1985,” she says, “and we opened Irma’s Sweete Shoppe right next to where Professional Optical used to be, right across from where I am now.”
(Note: Professional Optical was owned by another of my great and good friends, Pepe Salinas, a giant among men with the softest of hearts.)
A few years later, the Elizondos bought the property where she is today.
“When I was growing up, the property housed the old Frank’s Pumps business,” she says. “They sold parts for irrigation pumps, but by the time we bought it, it had been closed up for quite some time.”
So they bought the property, cleared it of debris and built the first Irma’s building of their own, opening it up for business in 1989.
“If you’ve been by our business much over the past 26 years or so, you remember how it was when we first opened. Just the one little shop up front.”
But since then, the business interior has continued to expand, its back wall moving further away from the street each time.
“If you own your own business,” she says, “there’s always some important decision staring you in the face. Like how much floorspace do you need to turn a profit?
Pipe’s strong presence
Things were going well for Irma’s Sweete Shoppe until her husband, -- Felipe, Pipe to his friends – died in December 2010.
“Something you never recover from,” she says, “the death of a spouse.”
Especially if you were married to a card like Felipe. A guy who never met a stranger, who could keep you laughing with those corny jokes of his, the cornier the better. And if he could make a girl blush, so much the better. The snowbirds loved him and came to Irma’s to chow down and listen to Pipe tell one joke after another.
“He was a presence in this business,” Irma says, “no doubt about that. Up until a few years ago, I still had out-of-town people showing up, asking to see him, not knowing that he’s passed away.”
Which in some way only added to her grievous heart.
“Sure, you get tired of having to explain over and over what happened. It’s like reliving the experience all over again each time you have to tell it.”
The personal loss is one thing, but Felipe’s departure also increased the workload on his wife.
“There’s this big joke about married people working together. They can’t do it because it won’t be long before one kills the other. In our working relationship, though, especially after he retired from the insurance company, we did pretty well together. What I never realized, though, was how much he did. Sure, on some level, I realized it, realized how he always had my back, how he helped shore up the business and manage the business affairs. But it was only after he was gone that I realized exactly how much work related to Irma’s Sweete Shoppe that Pipe actually did.”
Thankfully, though, she’s got a great family to help support her -- a wonderful daughter, two sons, great grandchildren. Team Elizondo, as her youngest son Danny refers to the whole shebang, keeps on churning along no matter what obstacles there are that lie ahead.
“This is a great family business,” says daughter Marina. “We bake and cook for people, schools, teachers, all over the Valley,” she says. “And we can’t thank our customers enough who have helped keep Irma’s in business for 30 years..”
Three decades later, there’s no doubt Irma’s Sweete Shoppe has become part of the heart and soul of Pharr’s downtown district. Last Saturday, the city of Pharr and the PEDC helped her promote and celebrate the event and her business, definitely a permanent fixture in downtown Phar.
“I’m thankful to all the city staff that helped out,” she says. “And I’m thankful that the downtown revitalization of Pharr is once again a big part of the city’s agenda moving forward. Having a vibrant downtown is so much a part of what makes a small city great. That’s what brings it its quaintness and its charm. Most of all, I’m thankful to all of our customers who have supported us over these past 30 years. The customers who buy our baked goods from all over the county, the city workers and the school staff and teachers who buy lunches from us, not to mention our beloved Winter Texans. Thanks to our customers who have remained loyal to us over the years, that’s why we are still here.”