Shirley Bailey, Houston businesswoman and part-owner of the Texas Tamale Company and chief operating officer, might not be what you'd first expect from a tamale tycoon. Bailey — who is neither Hispanic nor a native Texan (she moved here when she was six) — used her business savvy to turn a small tamale stand into a successful storefront + catering company + grocery store stand + online site.
She now sells tamales and toppings to customers worldwide. You'll probably recognize the distinctive bags from your local grocery store and Bailey's tamales have been featured on the Today Show as a good mail-order gift. CultureMap spoke to Bailey about everything from exotic tamales to the company's Kroger breakthrough.
CultureMap: First, I must tell you that I tried your spinach tamales for the first time last night, and they were absolutely delicious. We cooked the entire 12-pack for two people — and my boyfriend had more than his fair share.
Shirley Bailey: Good! I'm so glad you liked them!
CM: Tamales are an unmistakably Latin American tradition and cuisine — and Bailey is not a Hispanic name. Do you have a Hispanic background?
SB: No, I do not — and actually none of the people who own it now are the initial tamale makers. The founding family was Anglo, but they really wanted to start making a "healthier tamale," using vegetable shortening instead of lard. We switched from vegetable shortening to vegetable oil about three years ago, eliminating trans fats.
CM: So when did you acquire the business?
SB: In '95 for Texas Tamale Company, and '97 for Brazos Legends [the companion sauce, salsa and mixers label], which was founded by another couple — the man handled most of the company, and his grandfather was a sheriff in the Brazos valley area, so many of the original recipes actually came from the cooks on the trail rides, and how they were cook their meals over the campfires.
CM: Do you make tamales as well?
SB: Yes, yes — when Paula Dean's sons came for their show Road Tasted, I'm the one who showed them how to make tamales. We had a fun day.
CM: What is the most unusual tamale filling that you've ever created?
SB: We used to have a dessert tamale, and we're trying to get our act together to have them available for the holiday season — it's filled with apples, walnuts, and cinnamon. We also used to do a quail tamale and a venison tamale, too.
CM: When did Texas Tamales become available in grocery stores?
SB: It's kind of an interesting story. When the original founders decided that they could actually sell tamales — they initially just gave them to friends, family, and neighbors — they actually sold them out on the street corner near Highway 6 in Sugar Land and at Rice (football game) tailgates.
Bering's Hardware saw them out selling tamales, and contacted them, saying "We're having a special sale in our store on Westheimer, can you come out and sell tamales in our parking lot?" Then, afterwards, they said, "Listen, our customers loved having you here — can you come every Saturday?"
And then one cold, rainy Saturday, the store invited them inside — and Texas Tamales has been in Bering's ever since. Both locations have frozen tamales in their freezers all the time. We sell them hot every Saturday out of Bering's on Bissonnet, and at the location on Westheimer once a month.
In about '97, we were passing out tamales at a golf tournament charity event, and a Kroger executive tried a tamale and asked, "Why don't I have these tamales at our store?" And we said, "We'd love you to!" So that was kind of the beginning of getting into traditional grocery stores.
About three years ago, through our national distributor, we did a show up in the Midwest. Our tamales have a good reputation within the health food stores because they're gluten free, no trans fats, and they're a wonderful alternative to tofu.
CM: Tell me about your storefront?
SB: It's a very small place, your traditional little hole in the wall, in a strip center. We serve breakfast tacos in the morning, and at about 10:30 or 11 we transition into tamales. We make homemade chorizo, and during the winter the girls in the store will make a Mexican soup, or you can have a salad or rice bowl with your tamales. We do our catering out of that location as well.
CM: How has the launch of your website changed your business? What's the farthest place you've shipped to?
SB: Well, we used to have two separate websites — one for Brazos Legends and another for Texas Tamales — and in August, we launched a new site, with all of our products, including Bull Snort hot sauce.
Tamale wise, we ship every year to Puerto Rico. We can only ship to the 50 states and U.S. territories, because of customs regulations. But as far as Brazos Legends, the farthest we've shipped so far is Australia.