By: Kylie Cooper Photography: Rachel Benavides
Melissa Martinez’s first memory of tamales is perhaps similar to most. Sitting inside the Leopard location of Granny’s Tamales, she takes me back in time to her grandmother’s kitchen. The entire family is seated around a table, each with their own role in the tedious process of making these (eventually) delicious creations. “I remember walking in and sticking my hand in the meat bowl to eat it,” she says of her first taste of the traditional meal as a child. “I yelled ‘ew’ and my grandma laughed because they obviously weren’t done.” An ironic first step in what would be a lifetime of tamale making.
In 1996, Juanita Gonzalez, the original granny, opened Granny’s Tamales with a hot check. She knew the potential her tamales had, and by the time the man from the bank came to ask for the money, she’d already made it back. She believed in her product – the passion she had for it overcame any of the fears attached to starting a business. And so, a legacy was born. One she could pass down to her family, generation after generation, and feed the masses in the process.
Juanita knew in order to spread the word about Granny’s, she first had to get people to try her tamales. All it takes, she thought, was one bite. She went from office buildings to hair salons to shopping centers asking if people wanted a taste. Juanita understood that bringing her product directly to hungry workers would ensure more customers. “If she could just get them to taste one bite, she knew they’d be hooked,” says Martinez, Juanita’s granddaughter and the official “granny in training.”
Another reason for this tactic was to bring tamales to people’s minds outside of the November and December months. “People don’t think about tamales year-round, like we do. She knew she had to bring the tamales to them. Because when you’re working and you’re hungry and don’t know what you’re going to eat for lunch, Granny’s Tamales would walk in and be there to help,” Martinez says. Martinez’s mother Olga Gonzalez, the current owner of the Leopard location and Juanita’s daughter-in-law, chimes in. “She would walk into an office in March with tamales and people would be confused. I think that helped push the idea to people that it doesn’t have to be a holiday for you to eat tamales.”
The three of us are now sitting behind the counter at the shop. They’re still open for another hour or so, and Olga pops up from her stool to help the cars in the drive thru. To our left, there is a small gallery wall of sorts, consisting of various awards they’ve won, a small sign that reads “enjoy the little things,” two miniature sombreros, and a framed photo of Juanita and her husband Roberto Gonzalez. Throughout our interview, I catch Martinez and Olga simultaneously look to the hanging portrait when answering questions and sharing memories. You can feel Juanita’s presence in the room. Even after her passing in 2008 – 11 years this month – Juanita is at the heart of everything Granny’s Tamales does.
While Juanita’s original recipe remains the cornerstone of Granny’s Tamales, things certainly look a whole lot different than they did when she started driving that first van around town. In the beginning, Granny’s had one hand-cranked machine and a couple of pots, allowing her to produce about 20 dozen tamales an hour. There was an assembly line of workers with assigned roles to set, roll, and pack. Her famous pork and beef combination (something people weren’t quite sure of at the time), chicken, and bean were the only three flavors.
Today, Granny’s well-oiled production process makes a little over 100 dozen tamales an hour in 12 different varieties. “Thank god someone created these machines,” Martinez says with a laugh as she points to the back room where the magic actually happens. “This is a really big process. From the meat to the rolling to the packing, you have to be willing to get your hands dirty and be efficient.” And although the menu has grown since Juanita’s time, the way the masa is made will never change.
Before her passing, anyone in the family wanting to be in the business was required to train under Juanita. Her blessing was required. There was a legacy to uphold and Juanita knew that, even from the very beginning. Martinez lovingly refers to her grandma’s recipe and rules as “their bible.” When I ask why they’ve kept both the recipe and operations the same all these years she says, “because she is the one who trialed and errored for a long time to make sure everything was perfect.” She goes on to tell me Juanita’s unvarying rule: When you open the tamale, it should slip right out of the hojas. If it sticks, it’s no good.
Olga opened the location we’re currently sitting in 14 years ago, and Martinez will take it over once her mother decides to retire. Before she made the leap to officially become a part of Granny’s, she owned her own cleaning business. Juanita gave her the push she needed to finally accept her tamale faith. When I ask both Martinez and Olga their favorite memories in the shop, Olga speaks of her time training under Juanita. “She was strict, but I learned so much from her,” she says.
And now, Juanita’s taste buds and attention to detail manifest through Olga. She’s the one testing and tasting to make sure the product comes out the way grandma would have wanted it. “I have the taste buds,” Olga says. “I know how it is supposed to be and I am here to make sure it gets done the way she would have done it.” Martinez adds, “She’s there to make sure every single dozen comes out properly – and if it doesn’t, we stop and figure out where we went wrong. We have a legacy to uphold.”
This legacy I keep referring to, it’s real. More than 20 years have passed since the inception of Granny’s Tamales and they remain a South Texas tamale pillar. With 10 mobiles, multiple locations in the Coastal Bend, and a presence in Beeville, Sinton, Kingsville, San Antonio, Houston, and Juanita’s old stomping grounds of Walla Walla, Washington, there is no denying Granny’s success. While each location possesses its own personality and different varieties, Juanita can be found in each one.
We begin to talk about the legacy that is Granny’s Tamales and why it is so important to Martinez to take over this location once her mother retires. She explains how she’s seen tamale shops close down after the grandmother who started it passes. The new generation doesn’t find interest in taking over and the business slowly dies out. “Even just within the family, sometimes you’ll see that after the abuelitas pass, the recipes don’t get passed down and the tradition just fades out,” Martinez says. “So if your family isn’t making them and the shops aren’t making them, will this beautiful tradition just disappear? It can’t. We won’t let it.”
When I ask what they think Juanita would say today if she could see how far Granny’s has come since her passing, both Olga and Martinez pause. Spiritual or not, it feels as though Juanita’s loving and passionate presence is palpable in that moment. “My grandmother started this with blood, sweat, and tears,” Martinez answers. “As the years have gone on, we’ve advanced to new levels she could have never imagined. To see all of her kids and grandkids working together to continue her legacy, she’d be so proud.”
As for Granny’s secret ingredient – at least one they’re willing to share – it truly does come down to love. “We have a passion for tamales,” Martinez says. She turns towards her mom Olga and then glances back at Juanita’s portrait on the wall to our left. “It’s a lot of hard work. But, I saw my grandma open her first location. I sat in the chair she sat in for 20 years until she passed away. I felt the love she put into each tamale, and we’ll continue to do just that – exactly how she would have wanted.”