The Seattle Times

Tamales make hot enterprise for Yakima Valley immigrant

The Associated Press

UNION GAP, Yakima County — The history of tamales may date back to the ancient cultures of the Aztecs, Incas or Mayans, whose warriors needed portable food.Thousands of years later, the demand for food-to-go has not diminished, although the customers for Felipe Hernandez’s tamales are more typically workaday road warriors dashing into Los Hernandez restaurant on a lunch break.

“This is just tamales — nothing else,” Hernandez said.

That seems to be enough. Hernandez estimates that in the past 13 years, he and members of his family have made more than half a million tamales. Each is handmade, down to the all-important masa, the cornmeal that encases the spicy chicken or pork inside.

Los Hernandez is one of at least 1.2 million Hispanic-owned businesses in the United States, employing 1.3 million people and generating $186.3 billion in revenue, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, citing 1997 data released two years ago.

Washington state had just over 10,000 Hispanic-owned businesses then, with revenue totaling more than $1.7 million.

Hispanic businesses are starting up and growing, often bucking sluggish economic trends, said Luz Bazan Gutierrez, who owns Rural Community Development Resources in Yakima, a micro-lending firm.

“Things are hopping,” she said.

Many of the new businesses, from dental labs to trucking companies, are being started by immigrants, often those who have been in this country less than 10 years, she said.

Hernandez’s circumstances were a little different. He never imagined himself as a tamal entrepreneur. (In Spanish, “tamal” is the singular and “tamales” is plural.)

Instead, he suddenly found himself fired from his job as an appliance salesman at a chain store and needed a way to support his wife, June, and two daughters.

He took his retirement money and invested in a crash course in business. He already knew the product — he’d been selling his sister Leocadia’s tamales to co-workers for years — and he knew sales.

He adapted her recipe for commercial use and opened Los Hernandez in October 1990 in a small, boxy storefront on Main Street.

The business grew slowly. There were busy times, especially at Christmas, the traditional season for tamales. And there were slow times.

“I was just hoping to survive and stay alive,” said Hernandez, 55, a native of Piedras Negras in the Mexican state of Coahuila. Hernandez moved with his farmworker family to Wapato, Yakima County, in 1957.

Some customers, he said, came once out of curiosity and then returned. Others who wouldn’t consider paying $11.99 for a dozen handmade tamales ventured in when they discovered their mothers and grandmothers weren’t all that interested in spending hours in the kitchen.

“It’s very labor intensive” — a three-day process for each Hernandez tamal, although hundreds can be made at one time, he said.

Los Hernandez has no advertising budget, but the word has spread, thanks in part to “must-try” mentions in magazines such as Sunset, repeat customers who tell their friends, and tourists traveling the Washington wine-country corridor along Interstate 82.

Hernandez has shipped tamales as far away as New York, Florida and Hawaii, and even to Texas and Mexico. About 75 percent of his customers are non-Hispanic.

He won’t say how much money he makes in a year.

Los Hernandez remains a simple storefront, with a big U.S. flag out front and four tables inside.

It’s a family business. Felipe and June Hernandez grind the corn by hand — with a volcanic rock — and make the tamales at a separate building in Parker, south of Union Gap.

Their daughter, Rachel Wilburn, 27, works the counter at the Main Street shop on weekdays. Another relative sells tamales on Saturday, and Hernandez is behind the counter on Sundays. It’s a seven-day-a-week job that often begins before sunrise.

They all eat their own tamales, but “I try to back off and eat a sandwich every once in a while,” Rachel said.

There have been overtures from chain distributors, but Hernandez is content with the “mom-and-pop operation” he’s got now.

“It’s not work. It’s just to take care of what needs to be done,” he said.

His reward, he insists, is when someone likes what he does.

“We make tamales,” Hernandez said. “It’s a joy for me.”