Tamale business growing into retail space in downtown Pasco

The Tri-Cities’ appetite for Hot Tamales’ traditional Mexican dish continues to grow.

The Pasco-based food truck business is now serving its popular tamales through a walk-up window at 110 S. Fourth Ave. in downtown Pasco and hopes to be selling tamales from a retail store there by spring.

“People are excited to see the diversity. It’s a restaurant and a main Mexican dish and we only focus on that,” said Paulina Perez, co-owner of Hot Tamales.

It’s all a part of Downtown Pasco Development Authority’s plan to generate more year-round foot traffic and help more businesses like Hot Tamales succeed.

It’s also why the downtown revitalization agency designed walk-up windows for businesses operating out of its Pasco Specialty Kitchen, a commercial incubator kitchen designed for entrepreneurs.

[blockquote quote=”To see how we’ve grown so much, it’s rewarding.” source=”Paulina Perez, co-owner of Hot Tamales” align=”right” max_width=”300px”]

It’s a step in the evolution of bigger plan, said Luke Hallowell, executive director of the nonprofit. “We’re trying to truly incubate business from startup to storefront,” he said.

Thanks to improvements made to the authority’s building and specialty kitchen by the city of Pasco, the plan is beginning to take shape, Hallowell said.

A $38,000 interior remodel includes shelving, windows and partitioning, and $29,000 in exterior improvements include the installation of an awning as part of the façade update.

“With the new evolution of downtown and the public investment planned, we want to match that and invite people more regularly than they have been to come downtown but also to spend money downtown,” Hallowell said.

Between 30 to 40 businesses use the kitchen with varying levels of usage, but total usage has increased about 20 percent year over year, Hallowell said.

“We have three food businesses here exploring the concept of popup retail as opposed to permanent space,” he said. “It’s a pretty big step to ask them to roll out into a storefront. The walk-up windows replicate the mobile experience.”

Hot Tamales starting using its window Jan. 4. It’s open from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday.

“We’re super happy. It’s been great,” Perez said. “We don’t have to run outside and we would forget our keys and get locked out because we were doing curbside delivery from the street. People would call and we’d run out an order to their car.”

Perez said when the retail shop opens later this year, Hot Tamales will have additional offerings, like salsa, espresso and atole, a hot drink made from fruit and chocolate to eat with the tamales.

“It’s made with milk. It’s like hot chocolate but you can make it with chocolate and make it with pineapple or guava. It sounds weird but it’s super good,” Perez said.

Hot Tamales Fabian Perez, the nephew of co-owner Paulina Perez, smiles through the new walk-up window where customers can buy or pick-up pre-ordered tamales at 110 S. Fourth Ave. in downtown Pasco. (Courtesy Hot Tamales)

Hot Tamales Fabian Perez, the nephew of co-owner Paulina Perez, smiles through the new walk-up window where customers can buy or pick-up pre-ordered tamales at 110 S. Fourth Ave. in downtown Pasco. (Courtesy Hot Tamales)

The downtown nonprofit hopes to attract people to downtown Pasco to eat. “Food is a great traffic generator,” Hallowell said.

The nine-month-old Hot Tamales started by serving tamales last year at Pasco’s Food Truck Friday event and the Richland and Pasco farmers markets. It also could be found around the Tri-Cities at the Gesa Carousel of Dreams, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, football games and a few holidays bazaars.

“We were everywhere,” Perez said.

Their thriving online ordering business offers free delivery on Tuesdays and Thursdays with a minimum purchase of two dozen tamales.

Hot Tamales, which has been making its signature dish since April, uses a truck to participate in community events, and two cars with its logo to make deliveries.

No cooking is done inside the truck. It’s used to transport pre-cooked tamales using commercial warmers.

With the arrival of colder weather, events began disappearing and Perez said the business spent time focusing on its website with pickup offered at the kitchen. They also considered whether to build a second food truck when the opportunity came for the walk-up window and retail space.

“We’re pretty excited about it,” she said. “People kept ringing and people wanted tamales and so we kept directing everyone to the website. Christmas, we were really busy. Thanksgiving, we were really busy.”

Customers love her family’s tamales, Perez said.

The recipe was handed down to her mom from Perez’s great-grandmother.

Family, friends and co-workers were already vocal fans.

Perez’s mother, known as Mama Lupe, was born in the southwest region of the state of Michoacán in Mexico, and has been making tamales since she was a girl.

She worked for a packaged food company for 25 years, so when she retired, everyone kept asking, ‘When is your mom making tamales again?’ ” Perez said.

And Perez didn’t know how to make them.

“I only knew how to spread masa on corn husks,” she laughed.

She asked her mother for the recipe but one didn’t exist except for in her head.

“That was really hard. It was a pinch of this and do this,” Perez said.

They wrote it down and standardized it so the tamales could be produced in bulk.

The only changes made to the recipe  was to eliminate the lard. The Perez family’s tamales are gluten- and lard-free.

“Getting the recipe was very hard for both of us. I didn’t know how to make tamales and consistency is important. I think about the beginning of the process and want to cry,” Perez said.

To prepare for the new business, Perez signed up and graduated from the Food Truck Academy, a course offered at Columbia Basin College in Pasco to accommodate the growing food truck industry.

“It helped very much,” Perez said.

The small business is owned by Perez, her mom Lupe Perez and Perez’s boyfriend Juan Ozuna, all of Kennewick.

“To see how we’ve grown so much, it’s rewarding. Now it’s like the beginning is in the past. The opportunities are endless now. It’s pretty amazing,” she said.

Today, Hot Tamales is cooking up 300 pounds of meat, usually pork and chicken, but sometimes beef brisket, every other week in a process that takes three days.

Perez estimates the Hot Tamales cooking crew makes about 3,600 tamales a week.

They make vegetarian rajas, with jalapeños and cheese, and two kinds of vegan tamales, one with jalapeños and beans, and the other with potatoes, carrots, green beans and corn.

“A lot of our customers are not Mexican. I had customers who wanted a vegan option, so we started offering one,” Perez said.

The cost for a dozen tamales is $17.22, including tax.

“They’re not that spicy. We make them where kids can eat them,” Perez said.

The green salsa served alongside provides the heat.

Perez is already thinking about cooking more tamales for Día de la Candelaria, a holy day celebration on Feb. 2. It’s a popular time to eat tamales, she said.

“Sharing our culture — it’s the whole point,” Perez said.

Hot Tamales: eathottamales.com; 509-551-1110; Facebook; Instagram; Twitter.

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