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Inside Track: Achieving the American Dream
Mary Martinez immigrates to United States and opens two restaurants to satisfy her love for making tamales.
Mary Martinez is the poster girl for the American Dream. The co-owner and founder of the Wyoming-based Mexican restaurant Tamales Mary came to the U.S. at 17 years old and was able to turn her love for tamales into a thriving business, as well as a vehicle to give back to the community.
Originally from Veracruz, Mexico, Martinez came to the U.S. to chase the dream of a better life for her family. Looking back on her life, she said she wouldn’t have had the opportunity to do what she does now if she hadn’t immigrated to the states as a young woman.
Martinez started working to help support the family at 9 years old. Although she didn’t know what she would be able to do to give her family the better life she believed in, she knew she loved making tamales, which she had been doing since she was 13.
Martinez moved to Crystal Lake, Illinois, in 1998. For her first year in the U.S., the 17-year-old Martinez lived in an apartment while pregnant with her daughter.
“When I got here, I started making tamales in the apartment,” Martinez said. “I would make maybe 50 at a time.”
Martinez moved to Michigan and got her start in the food business by working for a bakery in Hudsonville for 11 years. There, she gained experience in the retail side of food service. Afterward, she went to work at to the original Tacos El Cuñado on Burton Street in Grand Rapids, where she gained knowledge in the restaurant industry.
Martinez and her husband Humberto Alvarez had a strong relationship with the owner of Tacos El Cuñado and were able to open their own Tacos El Cuñado on Bridge Street. The small corner café will celebrate seven years in business this year.
Although Martinez knew owning and operating a restaurant wouldn’t be an easy task, she couldn’t pass it up knowing the opportunity it would bring to her family financially.
All five Tacos El Cuñado restaurants in West Michigan are independently owned, so the couple had complete control of the restaurant operations. Unfortunately, the limited space of the small venue on the corner of Bridge Street and Pine Avenue restricted Martinez in making and serving the food that brought her the most joy, tamales.
“Obviously, it’s tacos over there, and I started making tamales, too,” Martinez said. “We sold a lot of tamales over there.”
Martinez did serve tamales in limited quantities at Tacos El Cuñado on Bridge for about four years, until December 2017, when she got the opportunity to open a new restaurant in a building at 1253 Burton St. SW in Wyoming. The new space, which would become Tamales Mary, allowed her to serve more varieties of tamales in greater quantities.
“There’s no (dedicated) place for tamales here in Grand Rapids,” Martinez said. “This is the only place with a lot of variety.”
Tacos El Cuñado on Bridge Street still serves tamales, although the menu is limited to about three kinds. Tamales Mary, by contrast, offers multiple varieties including chicken, pork, beef, vegetarian, bell peppers with cheese and sweet pineapple. Customers also can get tamales in a banana leaf instead of a cornhusk.
“I like to make something different with the tamales,” Martinez said. “I like to have choices. Most places in Grand Rapids have tamales — only one or two different kinds — and here we have 18.”
Tamales Mary started giving tamales for free to new customers to gauge their reactions. For the first few months of business, the restaurant received overwhelmingly positive feedback, so it continued to add more varieties of tamales, up from the seven choices it started with.
More varieties also allowed Tamales Mary to reach a broader audience. The only negative comments Martinez received about her tamales were they were too spicy.
“For some people, it has to be different. In the original recipe, those are very spicy,” she said.
Even though the original recipe has been modified to appeal to a wide range of customers, the menu does include what Martinez calls “Tamales Especiales,” which are made to the traditional recipe but have limited availability.
Martinez works with the original recipe from her mother. But to cater to a more health-conscious audience, her tamales are gluten-free and are made with vegetable oil instead of lard, which traditional tamales call for.
“We make them with no lard to make the tamales a little more healthy,” Martinez said. “I’ll get very sick if I eat too much lard.”
But based on customer feedback, the omission of lard does not compromise the flavor of her tamales, Martinez said.
To draw in customers when Tamales Mary first opened, the restaurant also hosted a promotional “Christmas special.” In one day, the restaurant sold 4,000 tamales.
Additionally, Martinez did not yet have a full staff, and all 4,000 of those tamales sold had to be handmade among herself, her husband and her daughter.
“It was a lot of work for me because I had no money to pay a team,” Martinez said.
Because of the success of the grand opening special, Tamales Mary continues to host the event every Christmas season.
Tamales Mary also broke into the food truck scene in summer 2018. After partnering with New York-based Move Systems and Downtown Grand Rapids Inc., the company debuted an eco-friendly food trailer to bring tamales to Rosa Parks Circle in downtown Grand Rapids.
DGRI provided Tamales Mary a $30,575 grant to help fund the $61,150 pilot program, according to an earlier Business Journal report.
The brand boosting thanks in part to the food truck has helped Tamales Mary grow to the point where the company is now envisioning expanding into larger retail companies like Meijer Inc. and Gordon Food Service, Martinez said.
Tamales Mary also is very community-minded and has partnered with several local schools and charitable organizations.
“I love to help somebody else, and organizations who give me the opportunity to help, I help,” Martinez said. “We have Healthy Homes, March of Dimes.”
Tamales Mary was a sponsor of the March of Dimes Signature Chef’s Auction held in November 2018, and in July, Tamales Mary also donated a portion of its profits from its Cinco de Mayo celebration to Healthy Homes Coalition of West Michigan.
Martinez also is active in partnering with local school districts. In June, she hosted a class on how to make tamales for the students of San Juan Diego Academy, a K-8 Catholic school in Wyoming.
Going along with her community-minded focus, Martinez actively employs local Latino people to work at her restaurant, as well.