At 2 a.m., Sonia Delgado climbs out of bed, flips on the lights, and steps into her kitchen to steam hundreds of homemade tamales.
She’s been following that exact routine for the past 11 years. Sonia, 42, runs a small tamale business called El Rubens Tamales with her family. Five days a week, they commute an hour from Antioch to San Francisco, where they set up a tamale cart at the corner of 26th and Bryant or 22nd and Illinois streets. If you’ve ever walked by in the early hours of the morning, chances are that you’ve seen — or smelled — the family’s steaming pot of tamales and coolers filled with sweet champurrado.
San Francisco might be locked down, but for tamale vendors like Sonia, staying in isn’t an option.
“I do worry about getting COVID, and I am scared, but we have to work,” she says in Spanish. She’s doing everything she can to stay safe, including stocking her cart with hand sanitizer, gloves, and disinfectant, and thoroughly washing her work clothes when she gets home. But concerns still remain, especially since her mother is diabetic and 69 years old.
When the pandemic hit in March, their street vending business came to an immediate halt. For five months, the family relied on her husband’s income to stay afloat as they waited out the virus. But when Sonia and her family returned to work in July, not much had changed — in one of California’s biggest cities, the streets and sidewalks were almost completely empty.
In normal times, the family sells up to 400 tamales a day along with plentiful catering and holiday orders. Now, Sonia’s lucky if she sells 200 tamales a day.
She’s tried walking the streets with her cart, stopping in front of stores to solicit sales, and even calling up old customers, but business has still been scarce. Thanksgiving sales dropped from 800-1,000 tamales to just 220. For the Christmas rush, the family usually works from 6 a.m. to 1 a.m. on the 23rd to assemble more than 2,000 tamales; this year, as of mid-December, they’ve only received two catering orders for a total of 130 tamales.
Business has slightly improved over the past two months, but at $2.50 each, it takes a lot of tamales to survive in California.
“Our health is the most important, but the rent and bills can’t wait. I pay the mortgage of my house, and that worries me a lot,” says Sonia, who regularly works 9-10 hour days to support her family.
She isn’t the only tamale vendor concerned about paying rent. For Isai Cuevas, who launched San Francisco-based tamale catering company Tamalitos with his wife Aly Cook in 2017, the loss in revenue means they are being priced out of the city.
To keep his workers employed full time amid a 70 percent drop in sales, the chef made the decision to cut down on his own living expenses by temporarily moving his family to his hometown of Oaxaca, Mexico. His plan is to run the business remotely for two months while his three employees take charge of the kitchen.
“It’s hard right now to tell somebody ‘I don’t need you anymore’ or ‘you’re going to have less hours,” he says, adding that he considers his employees part of his own family. “Where is he going to find another job? There is no work right now in the industry that we are in.”
While brick-and-mortar restaurants have been able to pivot to take-out and delivery, catering companies like Tamalitos were left in the dust.
“If you try to search [for tamales] online, you don’t want to search for a catering company. You’re going to go to a restaurant,” Cuevas says. He notes that in the commissary kitchen space he rents, every single one of the 10 neighboring kitchens has closed permanently.
Tamalitos had been building its reputation as a high-quality and organic tamale spot at pop-up events, food festivals, and farmers’ markets, but the bulk of its business came from catering for tech company lunches and parties. Cuevas, Cook, and their staff of four were catering for high-profile clients like Square and Box nearly every weekday — 1,500 tamales a week in an average month.
But once the city entered its first lockdown, all those gigs were cancelled with a single day’s notice. “Farmers’ markets are the only reason we stayed alive and I didn’t close my business,” says Cuevas. Tamalitos is now only operating three days a week instead of its usual six.
At this point, he tells me, they’ve tried everything: taco and tamale meal kits, bento-style boxes, third-party delivery apps, and applying to every single farmers’ market in the area. But it was difficult to get traction for new menu items as a catering company without a storefront, third-party delivery app commission rates were too high to pull a profit, and nearly all farmers’ markets were full due to new COVID-19 tent spacing guidelines. The only assistance Tamalitos received was a grant from the city of San Francisco, which covered a single month of rent and employee wages.
As for catering orders, which easily topped 10,000 tamales last Christmas, they haven’t received a single one this holiday season.
“We lost everything,” Cuevas says. “It’s not improving, and I don’t think that it’s going to get better, at least not this month.”
It’s a far cry from the hopeful narrative on Tamalito’s website, which tells visitors that the company was born from Cuevas’ dream to make the best tamales in the Bay Area.
Still, when asked if he’s ever considered doing anything else, he is unequivocal:
“This is what I want to do. I want to showcase my culture. I want to show all my Oaxacan gastronomy. And I still want to keep moving forward with this project. As a family, we’re going to keep doing this. We’re going to keep moving forward.”
El Rubens Tamales: For Christmas tamales, the deadline to place orders is Dec. 22. Call 415-673-9208 for orders in Spanish, and 415-573-7933 for orders in English.
Tamalitos: Find Tamalitos at the VA Farmers Market on Wednesdays and the Outer Sunset Farmers Market on Sundays. To place a catering order, call 415-866-0315 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Inquire directly about Christmas ordering deadlines.