By Abby Hoover
The Tamale Kitchen started with a simple and straightforward goal of providing jobs for women in the Latin American community. The concept was nourishing not only for our customers but also for the women in our kitchen who were learning important skills.
“I work with women, mostly Hispanic women in northeast Kansas City, who make tamales year-round as their, if you will, path to self-sufficiency, which means we pay decent wages, we pay good wages, to make tamales,” Gripp said. “We don’t have any other product. We focus on tamales as our signature.
“The Tamale Kitchen isn’t so much about tamales as it is about empowering women and uplifting them in terms of self-esteem and the ability to contribute financially to the family,” Gripp said.
A key part of this is the integration of women into the wider community. They work with the Blue Valley School District’s CAPS program, frequently attend a church in Northland, and do a lot of work at Overland Park. The Tamale Kitchen also has the support of many community partners, including Heartland Presbytery, Ivanhoe Neighborhood Council, Holy Rosary Credit Union, Northeast Chamber of Commerce, Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Visitation Parish, John Knox Kirk, and Ten Thousand Villages. Fair Trade Store. .
“The women are coming out of the northeast and getting familiar and being part of the bigger community, you know, going places they wouldn’t normally go,” Gripp said. “It helps bridge the cultural gap because so many people in our audience want to connect with the Hispanic community, they just don’t know how. So we become the bridge for them to have authentic food and help support an organization that works with women who seek to contribute to their families, their church, and the Northeast community as a whole.
Kitchen Manager Gigi has worked with The Tamale Kitchen for almost seven years and Gripp is proud of her growth.
“At first, I was pushing the grocery cart around Gringo Loco — we would all go there, or two or three of us would go — grocery shopping for ingredients,” Gripp said. “I was pushing the grocery cart and then paying with the debit card. Gigi now does all the shopping and she shops all the sales and all the little markets around and they know her – especially when she orders 100 pounds of pork, she gets a really warm welcome – but she does all the shopping, she s takes care of the planning, she takes care of the organizational part.
Those early shopping sprees were also a learning experience for Gripp, who can now tell the difference between a variety of peppers and has learned the secrets of the perfect tamales.
Gigi, who is bilingual in English and Spanish, also acts as a liaison between those with limited English and those with limited Spanish.
“I pay her extra, an extra amount, to do these things, to manage our inventory,” Gripp said. “So she moved into this position simply because she has exceptional organizational skills, she is able to do all of this.”
Now, Tamale Kitchen is looking to expand its team. The pandemic has been tough on the ladies who have cooked there in the past – one has health issues, one has decided to raise her children full-time and one has used her work experience to get a job in North Kansas CityHospital. While they had built a strong team of seven people, they are now down to two, bringing in family members when they need extra manpower.
“I’m looking for staff right now, additional women,” Gripp said. “I took this flyer to schools in Guadalupe and Truman, Holy Cross, Gordon Parks [Elementary School], Mattie Rhodes. The only qualifications are experience making tamales with your family and a love of the culture, as we make authentic, handmade tamales. We don’t push them through a machine.
The Tamale Kitchen has no public space, but instead works out of a production kitchen at 3210 Michigan.
“What I’m really focused on right now, to tell you the truth, is hiring,” Gripp said. “I think there’s a couple of senior housing units like right next to Holy Rosary Credit Union. I think this would be a perfect opportunity for someone who is mobile and can go to work and supplement a fixed income which is really hard to live with, 10 or 12 hours a week would be optimal.
With a community garden just outside and a collection of other organizations, including a 12-year-old girl who bottles her own lemonade, the shared kitchen space worked for them.
“So when someone orders tamales from us, the order comes to my phone from the website and I contact the person,” Gripp said. “Depending on where they are, I can meet them for delivery, I can deliver to their home. They can meet me in the kitchen and we’ll arrange a good time. We just accept the fact that we don’t have a brick and mortar space.
Gripp often says they cook by the grace of the community which means they don’t have overhead right now or rent or utilities which is why they can afford to pay well for a job well done.
“People say, ‘Do you pay $14 an hour to make tamales?’ and I’m like, ‘You’re trying to make tamales!’ ”, explained Gripp. “It’s no longer enough to just have a job. You need to be recognized for doing a good job and getting paid for it. We see this all around us, not just when it comes to tamales. So I think people understand.
Gripp founded the Tamale Kitchen nearly seven years ago, and since then has always run it in a very limited way, keeping her full-time job above all else. But in October 2021, a friend of hers who she knows through United Way and the community told her he wanted to start investing in small local businesses to help them revitalize and grow. She knew Tamale Kitchen, with the help of new investor and chairman James Uhlmann, could take it to the next level.
“Long story short, I was able to quit my full-time job and focus full-time on Tamale cooking,” Gripp said. “We are moving from a not-for-profit social enterprise model to a small social enterprise model. There is a corporate designation for companies that contribute so much to the community, and they have a special designation… Offering this work opportunity is huge.
The Tamale kitchen prepares the women it employs for future success. To start, they help women open savings accounts at the Holy Rosary Credit Union.
“It’s a unique business model, but it also recognizes that we can meet the needs of the women we work with,” Gripp said. “At this point they don’t need a 401k, they need an account and they need to understand basic savings, rather than cashing the check and putting it in a little purse that ‘they wear.”
“Tamales are so much more than just tamales, they’re a vehicle for different opportunities,” Gripp said. “And again, integrating into the wider community, having a bank account, being able to have a letter from Tamale Kitchen, from their employer, which they can take to their children’s school or which they can use in a doctor’s office to show their income and get a salary charge.
This year, The Tamale Kitchen is growing as more people order and more events take place.
“We were able to buy a commercial steamer,” Gripp said. “We can still get about 100 tamales in our huge pot, but steaming them takes at least two and a half hours to do, to cook them. Our used commercial steamer does the same thing, the same amount in about an hour and 15 minutes.
The reduction in production times will help them immensely when building their new food truck. Less than a week after its purchase, Gripp is already imagining the additional staff it will be able to hire – a driver and a mechanic, a cashier and an assembly team – the big events they will be able to cover and all the possibilities.
Overland Park students are working on an architectural design of the interior of the food truck so they can measure the equipment and see where it should be placed. They also have the ability to design the packaging on the outside with the Tamale Kitchen logo. Then they will look for a plumber and an electrician before they can hit the road.
“By making these two investments, we are taking the Tamale Kitchen to a whole new level,” said Gripp.
Gripp sits on the boards of the Hispanic Chamber and the Northeast Kansas City Chamber of Commerce, but his long career in finance is the experience that benefits those who work at the Tamale Kitchen.
She began her corporate career at Time Warner, General Electric and then JP Morgan before losing her job in 2008.
“And then in 2009 I went to work for Catholic Charities Kansas City,” Gripp said. “I have a background in training and personal finance, and I was hired to work with people who lost their jobs and needed help connecting to resources. My work was therefore very visible in the community and I made many connections.
She moved on to Next Step, which gave small dollar loans to people who had no credit as an alternative to payday loans.
“I worked closely with the Central Bank and Holy Rosary,” Gripp said. “And then I went to work for Onward Financial, which is a fintech startup where people were saving from their paycheck. They had an app where they could track their savings and get financial advice along the way where I I was in charge of financial education and then they could borrow, again tied to this predatory lending thing, after 90 days they can borrow twice as much as they had saved.
She then started doing financial education for a certified Housing and Urban Development (HUD) organization before moving full-time to Tamale Kitchen.
Tamale cuisine was created to invoke “images of faith, family, culture and values learned around the proverbial kitchen table,” according to its mission statement. The Tamale Kitchen is an impact-based initiative, which means that revenues are reinvested into women and families. For Gripp, its employees and the community, the Tamale Kitchen is more than just selling authentic, handmade tamales.