Two decades ago Alicia Villanueva and her family emigrated from Mexico with the dream of turning her passion for cooking into a profitable business.
She started out working as a housekeeper and a caretaker for disabled patients, but in her spare time she cooked tamales and sold them to many people in her Berkeley neighborhood. It wasn't easy, but Villanueva was willing to do what she had to do to make her culinary dreams a reality.
Today, she’s the proud owner of her own catering company – Alicia’s Tamales Los Mayas – and one of the chosen few with a contract to sell tamales at the brand new Chase Center in San Francisco.
“It’s a very nice and strange feeling,” Villanueva said. “Everyday I pinch myself to see if it’s true. We are living this very beautiful dream. I have to work hard and bring the best product. Tamales are delicious, I'm sure they'll be very happy."
While Villanueva feels like a champ now, it wasn’t always this way. She spent years cooking late at night, making about 100 tamales a day and selling them door-to-door in various neighborhoods.
She described feeling at times frustrated with the lack of income she was generating since much of it was being reinvested to buy ingredients for the next batch.
“I thought to myself, ‘This has to work, but it’s not working right now,’” she said. “It was then when I really understood that I had to be more prepared, and study and get into training courses.”
Villanueva enrolled in the San Francisco-based kitchen “La Cocina,” an organization that helped realize her dream of launching her Mexican dishes.
Thanks to loans from the Opportunity Fund, Villanueva and her family now have a 6,000 square-foot factory in Hayward that produces approximately 40,000 tamales a month and employs 24 people – a number she hopes will keep growing.
She credits much of her success to the support of her family, "La Cocina" and Bon Appetite – the company that helped arrange the contract between her and the Chase Center.
Her current menu at the Warriors' stadium offers only vegetarian options, but with her recent USDA approval, customers can expect to see chicken and meat tamales very soon.
"We started from nothing, we were penniless," Villanueva said. "It’s not easy but you can do it by being very persistent and very tenacious. Everything can be achieved with faith and hope and love, and most of all you have to have the passion to do what you really like."