Tucked in between the gazillion restaurants on West Randolph is a food wholesaler you may have passed by without much notice. La Criolla is the melodic-sounding importer and distributor. The logo—a cursive italic take on the company name—also bears the face of a dark-haired young woman.
“I have no idea who she is,” Carmen Maldonado said with a laugh. “I used to kid my husband that she was an old girlfriend of his.”
Maldonado is the president and owner of La Criolla, a role she was thrust into unexpectedly in 1992 when her husband was tragically killed in an auto accident. She knew a little about the business, having worked there in a support role after a career as a nurse.
For the past two decades, she’s kept the business vibrant and growing. That hasn’t always been easy in an up-and-down economy, and the food distribution business tends to be male-dominated, she said. But Maldonado is nothing if not resourceful and committed.
La Criolla primarily imports beans (dried and canned), olives, cooking oils, honey, jams and spices. Maldonado said she takes pride in offering high quality, natural products. She’s been working with the same olive grower in Savile, Spain for nearly 40 years.
The herbs and spices La Criolla offers have no dyes or fillers and they come in small glass containers. That’s the key to freshness, Maldonado said. Some of the most popular spices she sells are blends. The La Criolla crew experiments with different flavor and spice combinations to get the blends just right.
Many of the La Criolla products are geared toward Latin American and Spanish cuisine. The company motto is el orgullo de su olla – the pride of your cooking.
If you want to try La Criolla spices and beans in your cooking, you’ll have to go to Jewell-Osco or Walmart. Those are the two local retailers that carry the products. That may be expanding to more stores if Maldonado is successful in her growth plans.
She recently completed a six-month class in business development called Goldman Sachs 10,000. The program is geared toward helping small businesses expand, and was offered at no charge after Rahm Emanuel convinced the finance giant to offer it in Chicago. Maldonado was one of 37 local small business owners accepted for the program.
“It was like a mini-MBA education,” she said. “And it gave me some great ideas and tools to grow my business.”