Perhaps every day should be International Women’s Day, but we’re grateful for a single day in the year (March 8th!) to affirm that, well, girls rule.
To that end, we wanted to tip our hat to a vendor who inspires us. The talented Alicia Villanueva, whose incredible tamales we are lucky enough to carry, originally hails from the Mexican state of Sinaloa. She emigrated stateside 20 years ago. Today, her tamale business is a true story of resiliency, persistance and passion. From her start selling tamales door-to-door, Alicia built a thriving business with more than 20 employees (including her husband and oldest son) operating in a 6000-square-foot warehouse with numerous large corporate clients, only to see profits drop by 95% in the past year. Yet, Alicia has learned to adapt her business, sourcing new business funds to ensure payroll can be met, finding new clients, and relishing in the support of family—including all of her employees who have weathered the crisis alongside her.
Here’s a bit about how she got started—and the crucial nonprofit La Cocina that gave her a boost—plus how she makes food taste like love, and the importance of family.
Alicia learned the art of tamale making from her grandmother, and vividly remembers the time she spent with her mom and grandma in their small kitchen in Mexico making them. (Her chicken and carnitas recipes today hail from her abuela.) Decades ago, when Alicia first emigrated to the Bay Area from Sinaloa, she worked a nine-to-five job taking care of the disabled and cleaning houses. Then she’d come home, make tamales with her children, and sell them door-to-door in her neighborhood. At the end of an exhausting day, she remembers, “I’d see a profit of $30 and say, ‘What am I doing wrong?’ I realized I have to be educated.” So, when she came across a flyer for a local group called the Women’s Initiative for Self Employment, she took it as a sign.
She enrolled in the Women’s Initiative program and a teacher showed Alicia how to make a business plan. The teacher then directed her to La Cocina, a nonprofit largely devoted to immigrant women and women of color in the Bay Area. With its “incubator” program, it supplies a kitchen where aspiring restaurateurs and business owners can make their food, develop a business plan, and learn about the lay of the land. “La Cocina catapulted me to play in the big league (with clients) like Chase Center and these large corporations,” she remembers. “And now, Williams-Sonoma! I feel very proud to be here.”
La Cocina also helped when the pandemic lead to an unforeseen downturn in Alicia’s business, directing her to the federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and Economic Injury Disaster Loans (EIDL) to help maintain payroll while she directed her attention to finding new clients. Alicia was able to expand her business reach and is now supplying tamales to boutique markets in the Bay Area, as well as to a local school district.
“You know, honey, it’s really amazing,” Alicia laughs, getting nostalgic. “I remember when I was just growing the business. After my day job and taking care of my kids, I made my tamales and went on the street to sell them.” She’d return home, ask the kids, “Guess what we’re gonna have for dinner?” and answer her own question: “Tamales!” (It’s a good thing they’re so tasty!)
Of the children she shares with husband, Pedro, she says proudly, “They are hard workers, you know, because I think that they saw that in me. They really, really work!” Her son, Pedro, routinely gets up at 2:30 am to deliver a tamale shipment by 5 am. Her daughter, Grecia, and younger son, Pablo, help on the weekends. “They are not scared if I say we have to work many hours. They say, ‘OK, mom!'” She is thrilled to be passing her culinary culture down to her children.
Today, her kids sometimes keep her in line. Though Alicia once followed the salting instructions of her abuela—”Just make the sign of the cross and drop it in!”—today son Pedro “is standing behind me at the factory to keep the same flavor” and ensure consistent results.
Keys to Success
Alicia takes a family-first approach to her work, including for employees. “Everyone I’ve hired has been with us for three or four years. They are my second family.” She suggests that fellow aspiring entrepreneurs are openminded about making theirs a family-oriented operation: “It’s very beautiful to see that they make food for their tables and their kids, and I think we are doing things for the community and the economy.”
In fact, that’s how she makes her tamales so memorable: While cooking, she tells employees, “Just think that you are gonna give this food to your kids!” Alicia says that you “can feel the love, I think, when you are eating the tamales or any any plate that we do here.” She also insists, “We have to love each other more and help each other more.” Having recovered from a huge drop in her profits thanks to her business acumen, she truly believes love is the way forward. And we couldn’t agree more: You can taste it in her work!