Stephanie Ruiz grew up in a large Latino family in California. On holidays, the women in her family would spend hours together in the kitchen, making tamales.
“I loved it because you’d hear stories and learn about your family,” Ruiz says.
When she was 10-years-old, her immediate family moved to Fort Wayne for her father’s job at General Motors, but Ruiz’s mother didn’t let the tamale tradition die. Every year, her family would still make the masa or dough wrapped in corn husks and invite friends to help fill them.
“We’d tell people it was a tamale party,” Ruiz says. “We’d say, ‘Come on over, and we’ll show you how to put them together.’”
Today, using her mother’s recipe that has been passed down through generations of families from Guadalajara, Ruiz is extending the invitation to all of Fort Wayne with her new business The Hot Tamale Co!
Ruiz's family has been making tamales for generations.
Launched during the COVID-19 pandemic in April 2020 at Ft. Wayne’s Farmers Market downtown at Parkview Field, The Hot Tamale Co! makes authentic tamales and salsa to sell at the summer market and on Instagram-only in the winter.
Don’t let the name fool you, Ruiz says. The tamales themselves are not necessarily spicy, but using her assortment of four signature salsas, you can tailor the spice level to your taste buds. So far, she has three varieties of handmade tamales: a red chili pork, a green chili chicken, and a vegetarian bean, cheese, and jalapeno.
“My favorite is the red chili pork because it has boldest flavors,” Ruiz says.
The Hot Tamale Co! makes three varieties of tamales: a red chili pork, a green chili chicken, and a vegetarian bean, cheese, and jalapeno.
Since the business launched this spring, she, her sons (ages 11 and 14), and a small team of workers have been running it out of a shared kitchen at the Community Harvest Food Bank at 1010 N. Coliseum Blvd. Despite the pandemic, their business at the summer farmers market was booming.
“My very first day, I sold out two hours before closing, so that was an amazing feeling that, ‘Yeah, I have a good product,’” Ruiz says.
Since moving sales to Instagram-only this fall, things have slowed down a bit due to pandemic conditions and the fact that she has to personally deliver orders, she says. In the future, she hopes to have a food truck and, ideally, a permanent location at the Electric Works public market, where she can interact directly with customers and expand her menu to include authentic Latino fruit drinks called agua frescas made from fresh, local fruit.
Ruiz has dreamed of opening a tamale business for about 10 years.
So far, Ruiz is on her way to getting there thanks to support from SEED Fort Wayne’s Build Institute program for entrepreneurs. Ruiz graduated from the nine-week program in the winter of 2019 and was selected as one of a handful of companies to receive branding, website, and digital media setup from SEED. In 2021, SEED is organizing quarterly check-ins for graduates like Ruiz to meet with local lawyers, accountants, bookkeepers, bankers, human resource professionals, and the like.
These connections are not only proving helpful, but vital to helping emerging small businesses withstand the uncertainty of the pandemic, says Trois Hart, Executive Director of SEED. So far, the pandemic has been hitting small businesses—particularly women- and minority-owned businesses—disproportionately hard.
Despite the challenges, Hart was confident Ruiz would be successful with The Hot Tamale Co! because she came into the Build program with a delicious product, and she put in the hard work to carve out a niche for herself in the local food market.
“Nobody we know of in Fort Wayne is doing tamales yet as a lead menu item, so The Hot Tamale Co! is the first of a kind,” Hart says.
Ruiz sells her tamales at Ft. Wayne's Farmers Market in the summer and online in the winter.
While the concept has proven successful thus far, Ruiz says she didn’t always plan on running her own tamale business in Fort Wayne. Instead, she was eager to leave the city after graduating from high school and college, and she planned to build her life in Southern California, where she met her husband.
While on the West Coast, the couple began selling hydroponic tomatoes at farmers markets, and Ruiz fell in love with the market environment.
“We worked at farmers markets in Santa Monica, Studio City, and Santa Barbara, and we’d see people from all walks of life come through—even celebrities and personal chefs,” Ruiz says. “I loved the vibe, connecting with people and seeing people connect, how simple transactions turned into friendships and repeat customers.”
Ruiz says she originally tried to launch a food venture in California so she could sell at the farmers market, but the food scene was oversaturated and difficult to break into.
“There were only two health inspectors for my whole county, and the market already had a lot of food trucks and competition,” she says.
About seven years ago, she and her husband decided to move to Fort Wayne to enjoy a lower cost of living and send their sons to better public schools, and when they did, Ruiz discovered to her surprise that Fort Wayne’s food scene was booming with authentic eats.
“I went to Fort Wayne’s downtown farmers markets that summer, and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is the place for me,’” Ruiz says. “I was seeing the same types of interactions and connections I enjoyed in California, and I tasted a lot of authentic local food here, so I knew at that point: There’s a place for me in Fort Wayne.”
Since moving back, Ruiz has worked various jobs around town, including being a lunch lady at her son’s school, Homestead High School, while she developed her business plan. She says it was SEED Fort Wayne’s Build program last year that it kickstarted her concept and helped her turn her passion and vision into a legitimate business concept customers could trust.
Now, she’s proud that she’s been able to enrich the city’s food scene with tamales and provide jobs to a handful of workers, including a few high schoolers and another former lunch lady displaced by the pandemic.
“I’ve had this dream for 10 years,” Ruiz says. “It’s been 10 years in my mind, and all of the little things—the location, the product, the people—it all came together in Fort Wayne. Everybody has been so helpful here. I think this was meant to be.”
Follow The Hot Tamale Co! on Instagram at @thehottamaleco for updates, and send them a direct message to place an order. Tamales can be ordered ready-to-eat or in bulk for freezing.
This story is part of an Entrepreneurship series made possible by funding from SEED Fort Wayne. To learn more about SEED, visit its website at fwuea.org.