A wall in the new Yolanda’s Tamales Factory restaurant in south Sacramento prominently features an illustrated portrait of a mother and son. It’s the same image that is on the food truck the family started operating earlier this year. It’s a cartoon of owner Yolanda Vega and her youngest son, co-owner Andres Yanez, surrounded by unhusked ears of corn, monarch butterflies and marigolds, a flower found in abundance in Yolanda’s hometown of Zacapu, in the state of Michoacán, Mexico.
There are also family heirlooms: a metate, or a stone for grinding, that Yolanda says is 180 years old and had been passed down through the generations until it became the tool she used to make masa, a dough from ground corn that’s used for tortillas, huaraches and many other dishes in Mexican cooking. A cazuela, or clay pot, has been incorporated into the bottom of the portrait.
“When her mom — my grandma — was still alive, my mom asked her, “Can I have the metates?” She said no, but she gave her the pots,” Andres says, translating for his mother, who speaks Spanish. “(When her mom) passed away three years ago, she went to Mexico just to pick them up, just to have them in her possession. She gets really sentimental when she talks about it.”
“It shows how much she loves food, even the stuff you use to make food, it means a lot to her,” says Sandra Yanez, Yolanda’s daughter-in-law. “She takes a lot of pride in how she makes food and what she uses.”
“To not forget her roots,” Andres explains.
At 11 years old, Yolanda started selling buñuelos (semisweet fritters) and other local foods at street festivals around Michoacán. In 1984, she purchased a tortilla factory in her hometown. In 1988, she moved to Los Angeles and started selling tamales out of her van. When she relocated to Sacramento in 1996, she did the same thing, driving around town and growing her clientele. In 2007, she upgraded to a tamale cart and began working at events and farmers markets; the business now sells at three local markets. In 2009, Andres became co-owner and married Sandra.
Today, Yolanda oversees the kitchen and quality control. “She emphasizes the quality of her food,” Sandra says. “She loves it to still taste homemade like day one when she started. Good portion size, good meat size on the tamales, that’s why I think a lot of people come back to us. They’re not the average small ones.”
Andres is in charge of the markets, events and food truck, handling setup and selling the food that his mother has made fresh daily. Sandra works the booth and food truck, in addition to dealing with paperwork, email and social media. Other family members also occasionally work for the business, including Yolanda’s husband, Pedro Yanez, and her daughter and two other sons.
But sometimes running a family business means not having any free time to spend with relatives. Their biggest event of the year, Chalk It Up, takes place in Sacramento over Labor Day weekend, when an annual family reunion also happens, which they always have to miss. “Some people don’t understand that, but this is our career, and we’re trying to make our dreams come true, and it’s a lot of work,” Sandra says. “You can’t take a lot of breaks.”
The family says their whole life revolves around the business. They will be working together even more with the addition of their brick-and-mortar space, just off Franklin Boulevard, which is scheduled to open by October. The restaurant will sell tamales, along with burritos, tostadas, ceviche, and a selection of vegan dishes and aguas frescas.
The restaurant — just like the food truck and the tamale cart before it — marks a major milestone in Yolanda’s business and offers a lesson in hard work and entrepreneurship for her nine grandchildren, say Andres and Sandra. “We take pride in her name being known,” Sandra says, “because she has worked so hard for so many years.”
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