The Tamale Kitchen team preps ingredients for tamales. File Photo

By Abby Hoover

The Tamale Kitchen started with a simple, direct goal of providing employment for women in the Latino community. The concept was nourishing not only for our customers but for the women in our kitchen who were learning important skills.

“I work with women, primarily Hispanic women from Northeast Kansas City, that make tamales year round as their, if you would, pathway to self sufficiency, meaning we pay livable wages, we pay good wages, to make tamales,” Gripp said. “We don’t have any other product. We focus on the tamales as our signature.”

“The Tamale Kitchen is not so much about the tamales as it is empowering the women and raising them up in terms of their self esteem and ability to contribute to the family financially,” Gripp said. 

A key component of that is integrating the women into the larger community. They work with the Blue Valley School District CAPS program, frequently cater for a church in the Northland, and do lots of work in Overland Park. The Tamale Kitchen also has the support of numerous community partners, including Heartland Presbytery, Ivanhoe Neighborhood Council, Holy Rosary Credit Union, the Northeast Chamber of Commerce, the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Visitation Parish, John Knox Kirk and Ten Thousand Villages Fair Trade Store.

“The women get out of Northeast and become familiar and part of the greater community, you know, go places that they wouldn’t go normally,” Gripp said. “It helps bridge the cultural gap because so many in our audience want to connect with the Hispanic community, they just don’t know how. So we become the bridge so that they can have authentic food and help support an organization that’s working with women that are looking to contribute to their family, their church and the Northeast community at large.”

Kitchen Manager Gigi has been working with The Tamale Kitchen for nearly seven years, and Gripp is proud of her growth.

Kitchen manager Gigi stuffs tamales. Contributed photo

“In the beginning, I would push the grocery cart around Gringo Loco – we’d all go, or two or three of us would go – grocery shopping for the ingredients,” Gripp said. “I would push the grocery cart and then I would pay with the debit card. Gigi now does all of the shopping and she shops all the sales and all the little markets around and they know her – especially when she walks in orders 100 pounds of pork, she has a very warm reception – but she does all the shopping, she does the scheduling, she does the organizational part.”

Those shopping trips in the early days were also a learning experience for Gripp, who can now differentiate between a variety of peppers, and has learned the secrets to the perfect tamales.

Gigi, who is bilingual in English and Spanish, also acts as a liaison between those with limited English and those with limited Spanish.

“I pay her over and above, an additional amount, to do these things, to manage our inventory,” Gripp said. “So she’s moved into that position simply because she has outstanding organizational skills, she’s capable of doing all of that.”

Now, the Tamale Kitchen is looking to expand their team. The pandemic has been hard on the ladies who have cooked there in the past – one is experiencing health problems, one decided to raise her children full time, and one used her employment experience to get a job at North Kansas City Hospital. While they had built a strong staff of seven, now they’re down to two, who bring in family members when they need extra hands.

Founder Becky Gripp serves tamales. Contributed photo

“I’m looking for staff right now, additional women,” Gripp said. “I’ve taken that flyer to Guadalupe schools and Truman, Holy Cross, Gordon Parks [Elementary School], Mattie Rhodes. The only qualifications are experience making tamales with your family and a love of the culture because we make authentic, handmade tamales. We don’t push them through a machine.”

The Tamale Kitchen doesn’t have a public-facing space, but rather they work out of a production kitchen at 3210 Michigan.

“What I’m really focused on right now, to tell you the truth, is the hiring,” Gripp said. “I think there are a couple of senior housing places like right by Holy Rosary Credit Union. I think this would be a perfect opportunity for someone who’s mobile and can get out to work and supplement a fixed income that is really hard to live on, 10 or 12 hours a week would be optimal.”

With a community garden right outside and a collection of other organizations, including a 12-year-old girl who bottles her own lemonade, the shared kitchen space has worked for them.

“So when somebody orders tamales from us, the order comes to my phone from the website, and I contact the person,” Gripp said. “Depending on where they are, I can meet for delivery, I can deliver to their home. They can meet me at the kitchen and we’ll arrange a good time. We just accommodate the fact that we do not have a brick and mortar space.”

Gripp often says they cook by the grace of the community, meaning they don’t have any overhead right now or rent or utilities, which is why they can afford to pay well for a job well done.

“People say, ‘You pay $14 an hour to make tamales?’ and I’m like, ‘You try to make tamales!’” Gripp explained. “It’s not enough anymore to have just to have a job. You need to be recognized for having a good job and getting paid for it. We see that all around us, not just when it comes to tamales. So I think people are getting it.”

Gripp founded the Tamale Kitchen nearly seven years ago, and since then she’s always run it on a very limited basis, keeping her full-time job on top of it all. But in October of 2021, a friend of hers that she knows through United Way and from the community told her that he wanted to start investing in small, local businesses to help revitalize them and help them grow. She knew the Tamale Kitchen, with the help of new investor and President James Uhlmann, could go to the next level.

“Long story short, I was able to quit my full time job and devote full time to the Tamale Kitchen,” Gripp said. “We are moving from a nonprofit social enterprise model to a small business model with a social purpose. There’s a corporate designation out there for companies that contribute so much back to the community, and they have a special designation… Providing this opportunity to work is huge.”

The Tamale Kitchen sets the women it employs up for future success. To start, they help the women open savings accounts at Holy Rosary Credit Union.

“It’s a unique business model, but it’s also recognizing that we can accommodate the needs of the women that we’re working with,” Gripp said. “At this point, they don’t need a 401k, they need an account and they need to understand basic savings, rather than cashing the check and putting it in a little purse they carry.”

“The tamales are so much more than just tamales, they’re a vehicle to different opportunities,” Gripp said. “And again, integrating into the larger community, having a bank account, being able to have a letter from the Tamale Kitchen, from their employer, that they can take to their children’s school or that they can use at a doctor’s office to show their income and get a wage rated charge.”

This year, The Tamale Kitchen is scaling up as more people are ordering and more events are happening. 

“We were able to purchase a commercial steamer,” Gripp said. “We still can get about 100 tamales in our huge pot, but to steam them takes at least two and a half hours to do that, to cook them. Our used commercial steamer does the same thing, the same amount in about an hour and 15 minutes.”

James Uhlmann stopped by the Tamale Kitchen’s commercial space to greet Gigi (center) and Lupe (left) last week. Contributed photo

Cutting production times will help tremendously when they get their new-to-them food truck built out. Less than a week after purchasing it, Gripp is already imagining the additional staff she’ll be able to hire – a driver and mechanic, a cashier, and an assembly crew – the large events they can cater and all the possibilities.

Students from Overland Park are working on an architectural design of the inside of the food truck so that they can measure the equipment and see where it needs to be placed. They also have the capability of designing the wrap on the outside with the Tamale Kitchen’s logo. Then, they’ll search for a plumber and an electrician before they can get on the road. 

“By making these two investments, we’re taking the Tamale Kitchen to a whole new level,” Gripp said. 

Gripp sits on the boards of the Hispanic Chamber and the Northeast Kansas City Chamber of Commerce, but her extensive career in finance is the experience that benefits those who work at the Tamale Kitchen. 

She started out on a corporate career path with Time Warner, General Electric, then JP Morgan before losing her job in 2008. 

“And then in 2009, I went to work for Catholic Charities Kansas City,” Gripp said. “My background is in training and personal finance, and I was hired to work with people who lost their jobs and needed help connecting with resources. So my job was highly visible in the community and I made a lot of connections.”

She moved on to Next Step, which did small dollar loans for people that didn’t have credit as an alternative to payday lending. 

“I worked closely with Central Bank and Holy Rosary,” Gripp said. “And then I went to work for Onward Financial, which is a financial technology startup where people would save out of their paycheck. They had an app where they could track their savings and get financial tips along the way in which I was responsible for the financial education, and then they could borrow, again tying into this predatory lending thing. After 90 days, they can borrow twice as much as they had saved.”

Then she started doing financial education for a Housing and Urban Development (HUD) certified organization before moving to the Tamale Kitchen full-time.

The Tamale Kitchen was created to invoke “images of faith, family, culture and values learned around the proverbial kitchen table,” according to its mission statement. The Tamale Kitchen is an impact-based initiative, meaning the revenues are reinvested in the women and families. For Gripp, her employees, and the community, the Tamale Kitchen is so much more than just selling authentic, hand-made tamales.