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San Fran Tamale Institution Gets Moment in the Spotlight

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

By Hadassah Patterson 

“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 Gale, a spokesperson for MEDA, says most program participants are people like Alica, 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,” Gale 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,” Gale 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,” Gale 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.” 

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,” Gale 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.

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 developed in partnership with Next City.