Published March 11th, 2022 at 6:00 AM
On a Friday evening in February, the vaguely spicy aroma of charred poblano chiles wafts through the Ivanhoe Farm to Table Kitchen at 3210 Michigan Ave. in Kansas City.
Gigi Reyes and Lupe Quijano, founding members of The Tamale Kitchen, use the community kitchen rent-free to make Carmen’s Tamales de Raja, a chile-and-cheese stuffed tamale based on family recipes from northern Mexico.
“It’s hard work. A lot of people say, ‘No thank you!’” says Reyes, a grandmother, who is fluent in Spanish and English, and cares for her preschool-age grandchildren on weekdays.
Quijano, who regularly works on the clean-up crew of construction sites, scoops the masa from the bowl of a donated industrial mixer onto damp corn husks and plops the combination onto the counter.
Reyes smears the stoneground masa from Las Marias Tortilleria across the bottom triangle of the husk with the back of a spoon. A few minutes later, she ladles a poblano-jalapeño-onion mixture on top.
Quijano follows up by adding slices of Oaxacan cow’s milk cheese then folds the packets before stacking each upright inside a metal steamer forming concentric circles.
The kitchen choreography repeats two more times until the steamer is full as the two best friends laugh and chat.
Making tamales may appear a simple task, but it is one that takes hours, which is why Reyes says within Mexican culture they are usually made only at Christmas, when families gather and there are lots of hands to help.
But tamaladas – the Spanish word for a gathering with the express purpose of making tamales – had to be put on hold during the social distancing imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Although the group offered pickup orders, over time sales dwindled.
“During COVID, we were barely making it. It is by the grace of the community that we survived,” says Becky Gripp, who founded The Tamale Kitchen as a nonprofit organization in 2015.
A request last fall for 2,500 tamales by the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art for the annual Dia de Los Muertos Festival helped keep The Tamale Kitchen afloat. It was the largest order of tamales the group had ever received.
But at a tipping point during the pandemic, Gripp wasn’t sure how to carry on until a much-needed infusion of capital from businessman James Uhlmann launched The Tamale Kitchen into high gear.
Fulfilling his own dream to run a food business, Uhlmann and Gripp partnered last fall. Their goal: to help the nonprofit transition to a profit-for-a-purpose business model.
The Tamale Kitchen has since acquired a new commercial steamer, doubling production to 500 tamales a day, and a new food truck is in the works to help expand distribution.
New products include the new raja filling, a tamale bouquet for gift giving and jars of Salsa Tamal, a sauce for pork tamales. New culinary collaborations with minority businesses are in the planning stages, and a newly formed advisory board will offer new ideas and insights.
“It’s not enough to have a job, but to have a good job and be paid well for it,” Gripp says. “We have shown what impact a small business model with a social purpose can have. Now, with an infusion of capital, we can create impact.”
Gripp was the economic security coordinator for Catholic Charities when she met the priest serving at Our Lady of Peace Parish in Kansas City’s Northeast neighborhood. He was seeking a way to help the Hispanic women in his congregation find good paying jobs that could help them lift their families out of poverty.
“I’m not Catholic. I’m not Hispanic and I don’t speak Spanish, so go figure,” Gripp says.
But she used her contacts within the community, her financial training and a willingness to provide mentorship to create The Tamale Kitchen.
“It’s not so much about the tamales as it is about the opportunity for the women and their families to learn kitchen table economics and to get out into the community,” Gripp says.
Reyes and Quijano are the only remaining members from the founding kitchen crew. They earn $14 an hour and work an average of 16 hours a week to supplement their family income. The women usually work on Friday and Saturday. The other members moved on during the pandemic for a variety of reasons, including health, a change in family responsibilities and, in one case, a new job.
“I stay here because for me it is community,” says Reyes, who has grown into the role of kitchen manager, receiving $10 per hour extra pay to shop for ingredients and manage work schedules.
“We have worked with The Tamale Kitchen for many years as our featured food vendor,” says Sarah Hyde Schmiedeler, the Nelson-Atkins manager for multigenerational learning and engagement. “I’ve been very impressed every time I’m around Becky and the members of her group.”
Students of the Blue Valley School District’s Center for Advanced Professional Studies (CAPS) Program recently spent 230 hours over several weeks to help jumpstart The Tamale Kitchen’s growth.
Over the course of the community partnership, students have contributed logos, aprons and volunteered to help The Tamale Kitchen at various events. This semester her classroom divided into teams to research business topics for The Tamale Kitchen ranging from food truck regulations and best practices to social media strategy and new product launches.
“Becky is such a visionary,” says Blue Valley CAPS instructor Janet Graham, who has been a partner since 2016. “I think the food truck will be a gamechanger, and it will be fun for my students to say, ‘I had a part in that.’”
As Reyes and Quijano finish their last round of tamales for a grand opening celebration at Café Corazon’s second location, Gripp pauses from taking notes for a presentation she will deliver to the Greater Kansas City Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
The topic: Business solutions to alleviate poverty.
“There is a lot of untapped potential and we’ve just been scratching the surface,” she says. “Until now we’ve been a shoestring operation, but we have tremendous potential to do something special.”
Even though the Reyes-Quijano tamalada is fast and efficient at their job, extra hands will be necessary to move their shared venture forward.
“We made (Becky) learn, but she’s not fast!” Reyes says to tease her mentor, who is within earshot and smiles broadly.
Q: What is the secret to a tasty tamale?
“It depends on what you put in the masa,” says Gigi Reyes, keeper of The Tamale Kitchen recipes. “The seasoning is what makes the difference.”
Masa is a stoneground corn flour used as a base for tamales.
Q: How do I eat tamales? Are they available year round?
Best advice: Don’t eat the husk. Unwrap and enjoy.
“Hispanics only make them at Christmas, but for you guys, you want them all year round,” she says with a laugh.
Q: How can I order from The Tamale Kitchen?
Most customers have learned about The Tamale Kitchen through word of mouth. The business has a website and a Facebook Page. They do not have a retail location. To order, go to thetamalekitchen.com.
Products include Carmen’s Tamales de Raja (2 for $7) and Salsa Tamal ($8).
Other fillings include pork, chicken, vegetarian (carrots, bell pepper, mushroom, onion, spinach and corn) and dulce (sweet tamales with coconut, pineapple, brown sugar, cinnamon and raisins).
A dozen tamales cost $30 and a half-dozen $15.
Jill Wendholt Silva is a James Beard award-winning food editor and freelance writer. You can follow Silva at @jillsilvafood.