San Fran Tamale Institution Gets Moment in the Spotlight

Community funding helps grow door-to-door business to wholesale success.

rice, beans, and tamales

One of Alicia Villanueva's famed tamales from her restaurant, Los Mayas in San Francisco. (Photo courtesy of Alicia's Tamales) 

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Hay que perseguir la chuleta.”

This is a common saying in Mexico. One has to “pursue the chop”—or make a living. In America, one might say they are “bringing home the bacon.” Alicia Villanueva, the owner of Alicia’s Tamales Los Mayas in San Francisco, understands the meaning quite well.

Villanueva started out selling her tamales door-to-door more than a decade ago with determination to care for her family. As an immigrant, when she recognized that while she wanted more business growth, the traditional funding options were slim. She began attending free workshops with MEDA - Mission Economic Development Agency and working with La Cocina, a San Francisco incubator kitchen cultivating food entrepreneurs. The incubator offers affordable kitchen space, business consulting, a storytelling platform to amplify their voices, and a direct connection to the market via the Municipal Marketplace Food Hall. Both organizations empowered her to take her business to new heights—she went from 100 sales per week in the beginning, to making 30,000 tamales a month prior to the pandemic.

Christopher Gil, a spokesperson for MEDA, says most program participants are people like Alicia, who are looking to create a small business as a financial asset for their family. Villanueva also worked with La Cocina simultaneously and graduated from their program after five years in 2015. At that point, she was ready to scale, and that is where CDFIs like MEDA’s Fondo Adelante (Forward Fund) stepped into the gap.

“She needed a facility, so we offered her a $100,000 loan,” Gil says. “She was able to use that money toward a place over in the East Bay so she could actually scale her business and hire some workers,” Gil says.

Over time she grew to the point of wholesaling. “She’s one of those people that really has an entrepreneurial spirit, she just needed access to capital,” Gil says. “A lot of traditional lenders won’t provide that access to capital for immigrants and people of color. That’s where a loan will help people in that situation. Small businesses also create jobs for others in the community. It’s been great to watch her trajectory.”

Chef Alicia Villanueva posing  with her trays of tamales

(Photo courtesy of Alicia's Tamales) 

Villanueva was able to acquire a lease on a 6,000-square-foot facility and now has 21 workers.

Nevertheless, the pandemic posed a new challenge. “From one day to the next, we lost 95% of our business,” she says. “March and April was really a nightmare, because we were just trying to keep the pay for our employees early on. But, we didn’t lay off anybody. And my three kids and my husband are working so hard with us,” she says.

They pivoted from catering to working with schools. Alicia’s husband and son (both named Pedro) drive to Bakersville, California, to deliver tamales to 14 schools by 5:00 a.m. every day. They also attained a prime contract with the Chase Center Warriors Arena in San Francisco, but that is not a production focus until the season is more active. Right now, they’ve added online retail sales of her tamales and salsa via Williams Sonoma, and are exploring additional outlets. “You don’t have any day off, but if you don’t do that you can lose the business,” Villanueva says. “You have to find resources and be close to professional people who give good advice.”

CDFIs have ground-zero awareness of neighborhood demographics and challenges because lending is not a one-off transaction for them. “We keep in touch with them. So we can still support them through their process, and that creates a level of trust,” Gil says.

“They are just taking care of all the small businesses like me. And they have an amazing organization that is really super in every way. I told them I need to do my 5-year financial projections, and MEDA gave us support for financial advising,” Villanueva says. “I feel like we are starting again. But I’m very confident we will make it. The key ingredient is to love what you are doing — to be persistent and passionate. There are no barriers in the struggle. If you really believe in your dream and love what you are doing, just go for it.”

Perseguir la chuleta. Bring home the bacon.

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This story is part of our series, CDFI Futures, which explores the community development finance industry through the lenses of equity, public policy and inclusive community development. The series is generously supported by Partners for the Common Good. Sign up for PCG’s CapNexus newsletter at Editor’s note: We’ve corrected the spelling of Christopher Gil’s name.

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Hadassah Patterson has written for news outlets for more than a decade, contributing for seven years to local online news and with 15 years of experience in commercial copywriting. She currently covers politics, business, social justice, culture, food and wellness.

Tags: small businesssan franciscocdfi futures

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