Jun 17, 2023

How a San Antonio family built a business on ice — and later, snow

There aren’t many winners when it’s this hot out for this long, but it’s safe to say those who sell ice for a living are in that small category.

Mireles Party Ice, which has been growing steadily since patriarch and founder Jesus Mireles III started crushing blocks of ice behind his Westside store in 1981, certainly does most of its business in the hot summer months.

But this summer? Sales slowed right after the Fourth of July.

“It just got so hot that people didn’t even want to do anything,” Mireles said.

Turns out it can actually get too hot for ice — or more specifically, for outdoor activities during which people consume ice, like an afternoon on the river or a backyard barbecue.

It was a slight dip — the company kept selling to its biggest customers, including to construction companies, whose workers toil outside no matter the temperature — but a dip just the same, one that could become more common as hotter summers become the norm.

That heat-related decline wasn’t the first time weather has impacted the home-grown company, which produces 140 tons of packaged ice every 24 hours from its headquarters on South Zarzamora, just south of the San Antonio Produce Terminal.

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The snowstorm that touched off power plant failures across Texas in February 2021 shut production down for five days. The boil water notice that followed, however, led to an unseasonably busy week, said Jesus “Jesse” Mireles IV, vice president and co-owner of the company.

“Restaurants and bars were reopening but they couldn’t make their own ice,” he said. “They were calling us looking for ice that had been made before.”

Emergency ice delivery is one of Mireles’ services, which will run a minimum of 400 pounds to San Antonio-area bars, restaurants, schools and hospitals within two hours of an order.

Snow parties are another. What started out as a special request to turn a local school into a winter wonderland has become a mainstay offering for Mireles during the winter months. The company started with one machine that turned blocks of ice into snow; they now have five, modified to use the packaged ice their machines turn out.

“We used to have to start the night before to make 3 to 4 thousand pounds,” said the elder Mireles. “Now we can do 20,000 pounds in an hour.”

Jesus Mireles III grew up helping out at his grandfather’s fruit stand at Military Drive and Mission Road. He was working at Joske’s earning $1.70 an hour when his uncle suggested he try out the family business and sell fruit from the back of his 1964 Ford truck. He recalls spending $150 on produce, which he sold over a weekend, turning a profit of $235.

The Joske’s job didn’t last long after that. Eventually, his father suggested he look for a property to build a fruit stand like his grandfather’s. Jesus chose a spot at Culebra Road and Northwest 38th Street, and made a decision that would ultimately change the trajectory of his career: selling beer to go.

For years, the keg business was a good one. Mireles included a tub, ice and cups for each rented keg. He began buying blocks of ice, which he crushed himself. After a decade of that, he bought a small ice machine, then another with twice the capacity of the first.

But eventually, liquor store chains began moving in, and sales started to shrink. Meanwhile, his ice business was growing. In 2005, he purchased the property on South Zarzamora. (Mireles sold Mireles Party Kegs in 2017.)

The new property had been a block ice plant, which were often built near produce terminals, he said. Before refrigeration, produce trucks would back into the ice plant to have ice sprayed over the fruits and vegetables for transport. For the first few years, the company built storage freezers on the property for ice still being made behind the store.

In 2017, Mireles and his three children, who now run most aspects of Mireles Party Ice’s day-to-day operations, built the current 22,000-square-foot facility, which has room for four machines that can produce 60 tons of ice a day each. Two are running, along with a pair of 40-ton machines. A third 60-tonner is waiting to be hooked into the power supply.

Together, the Mireles siblings — Jesse, Bianca and Mireya — oversee roughly 60 employees and a sales area that continues to expand beyond San Antonio, north to Austin and Kerrville, west to Uvalde and south along Interstate 37 to Corpus Christi. They declined to share revenue numbers.

Jesus made his son vice president when he was 14 and still a high school student at Central Catholic. The elder Mireles said he wanted Jesse to have “skin in the game.”

Jesse, who worked part time through high school then full time while attending St. Mary’s University, agreed that the tactic worked. Now 20 years later, he said he still loves what he does.

“Every day, there’s a new problem to solve,” said Jesse, who is also active in the International Packaged Ice Association, serving on its board during the pandemic. The IPIA accredits ice manufacturers, promoting high standards and consumer safety, reminding consumers what’s at stake with its tagline, “Ice is food!”

Like it was for so many businesses, the pandemic was hard on Mireles Party Ice; with the shutdowns it suddenly lost a customer that represented more than a fifth of its business. By 2021, business had begun picking up, but the labor shortage was in full swing.

“It was horrible,” Jesse Mireles said. “We were all out on trucks [making deliveries], even my dad was back in a truck.”

Since then, he said, the company has increased wages and benefits, and added sales commissions for some employees. While they’re still always looking for drivers, the increases have helped with hiring and retention, he said.

“And these guys deserve it. People always say, ‘Oh, ice delivery, cool job, man!’ but it’s actually really hot out there in the sun and heat.”

The company recently invested in a palletizer, which extends the existing automated system that fills and seals bags of ice to stacking them onto pallets. Workers who used to do that physically demanding job were retrained to drive, Jesse Mireles said.

Meanwhile, the third generation of Mireleses have started to come to the office. Maya, Jesse’s 2-year-old daughter, likes to answer the phone. “Ice?” she asks. Bianca’s son Luca, at just under 4 months, is still mainly focused on looking adorable on grandpa’s lap. And in November, the family will welcome Jesus Mireles V.

Jesse said he was shocked to see the kinds of elaborate parties some parents threw for their young children when the movie Frozen was popular, including snow from Mireles Party Ice.

“Now, I totally get it,” he said.

Tracy Idell Hamilton covers business, labor and the economy for the San Antonio Report. More by Tracy Idell Hamilton

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