Tucson Tamale's Secret Ingredient

As they open their third location, how did one couple end up selling a million tamales a year?

No, it's not the cliché of love that makes a local homegrown business successful. It takes more than just love. Often times in this charming city of ours, people who have a love for something still fail at what they love to do. Tucson Tamale's secret ingredient to their success are guts. I do not mean that they add offal or butchery leftover to the tamales. Rather, guts as in effrontery or chutzpah that has propelled the little tamale empire into three locations in town, along with success in many other facets of the food industry.

Tucson Tamale has opened their third location at 7286 N Oracle Road (the old JAX Kitchen digs), with this expansion coming just nine months after they opened their second location on East Tanque Verde Road and the flagship restaurant/catering/pick-up-some-of-the-best-damn-tamales spot flourishing at Broadway and Tucson Boulevard for six years. Along with selling many, many tamales, TTC has garnered much critical acclaim as well. They have earned a spot in Tucson Weekly's 100 Essential Tucson Dishes, are perennial Best of Tucson winners at this point and made Arizona Highways's list of the Best 25 Restaurants in Arizona. The much loved and praised "happiness in husks" have also found success in the wholesale game, being sold in local Sprouts, Trader Joe's, Whole Foods, Aqua Vita and on menus such as Maynard's. The president of the Diamondbacks is a vegan with a wife who is a Tucsonan and together they have been regular customers for years. When they had a meeting with administrators and chefs at the ballpark, they ordered tamales from TTC, next thing you know they were on the menu concession stands in Chase Field.

I sat down with Todd and Sherry Martin, the owners, operators and brains behind Tucson Tamale Company. Being a fanboy of sorts for all things Tucson food, I wanted to get an idea of why they seemed to be expanding so rapidly in 2014 as well as the real recipe for the success. Upon meeting the lovely couple, they were, as expected, gracious hosts, giving me a tour of the facilities and offering me food. However, they are not stereotypically what you would think as some of the best tamale slingers 60 miles north of Sonora, Mexico. Neither Todd nor Sherry look like nonas, whom you would expect to see laboring over steam pots, bags of dried red chilies and pork shoulders around the holidays. Todd is a tall, Caucasian man, very fit, appearing as someone you might envision as the young, hip dad on a sitcom set in Southern California. Sherry is a lovely young lady sans apron covered in salsa and masa. This is Tucson's tamale royal couple.

I asked the Martins, "Why tamales?" Todd responded that he was a born entrepreneur. Okay, cool story, bro. No, he means it. He sold gum in 8th grade, got caught and sent to the principal's office. The principal told him he could not sell products on school grounds because he did not have a license to do so. So Todd, with the help of his father, obtained a seller's license and returned to his junior high-bubble gum-sales empire. When caught and sent to the principal's office again, he promptly produced his license to the administrator and asked to be let back to business (of which he was promptly thwarted from doing so). Todd has always shown a business savvy and foresight as well as had a love for the culinary arts. He opened up a restaurant in Denver's Union Station, which at the time was equivalent to Los Angeles' Skid Row. That area of Denver is now home to Coors Field. After the restaurant biz, he obtained a job at Intuit where he and his wife worked together for years.

While Todd brings the hustler's ambition to the business side of things, Sherry brings the street cred to the tamales themselves. Sherry's mother, Celia Potts, is of Mexican decent, and the family has had a long tradition of tamale making. When Sherry brought Todd to the first holiday tamale making party at her mom's house, he had no idea the day of work he had in front of him, but they enjoyed every bit of it.

The Martins knew they wanted to open their own business, they knew they wanted to do something food related but not necessarily a restaurant. They wanted to build a brand, something that would stand up to the fickleness and cash flow issues that can haunt a restaurant in today's world. When Todd's sister, Lisa, heard of his love for making tamales at Mama Celia's, she bought him a tamale cookbook. Todd took one look inside and said to Sherry, "We're going into the tamale business." Almost immediately, Todd put in his three month notice at Intuit. Gutsy.

Tucson Tamale Company was born. Sherry continued to work at Intuit, while Todd plugged away at getting the business going. I was surprised to learn that Todd himself was responsible for a good majority of the recipes for the tamales and salsas. Some of them are based on traditions he has learned from Sherry's family, some are ideas that Todd has come up with while putting this thing together, and some, like the blue tamale, just came about organically. A vegetarian customer who was ordering tamales wanted calabacitas as a side dish, to which Todd obliged. While putting together a Fourth of July pack (one flavor with red masa, one with white and one with blue), Todd wanted his blue tamale to be a vegetarian option. Ding! Fill it with the calabacitas he had made for his customer. It is no longer a holiday special, but a popular menu mainstay.

I asked the Martins why they decided to grow three fold within this year. The answer was simple: They always envisioned on having three locations, central, east, and northwest, and it was just a matter of timing. They waited to do so until they could accomplish the goal without taking on too much debt. Once they put the Tanque Verde location into motion, the JAX location became available, and it just worked out that way.

When asked about any future expansion (now that they reached their initial goal), Todd's answer was that they "had no plans at the moment," but with his shrewdness and drive, there is no telling where this Tucson business will head. I then asked the question that was on my mind since meeting the Martins; "What is it like being the Tamale King as a light-eyed, fair-skinned guy in Tucson?" Todd said "Well, my family in Tucson is 90 percent Mexican, plus I have had people from Sonora tell me they are the best tamales they have ever had. The real proof is in the product. I will put my tamales up against any others, anytime."