Alejandra de la Fuente is the undisputed tamale boss of the Lenexa Public Market. From her cozy space just inside the front door, she greets customers warmly, dishing out thousands of tamales and breakfast burritos every week. She has a cult following among Kansas City foodies and she represented Kansas on Food & Wine magazine’s 2018 list of best burritos in all 50 states, despite being open less than a year.
She is the Public Market’s big success story. But only two years ago, she had never made a tamale in her life.
De la Fuente’s journey has been full of twists and turns that may only seem likely to other people who have a dream of opening a small business.
It was 2016 the first time she attempted tamales. She just wanted to do a few for family at Christmas time. Since no one in her family ever made tamales, she had to get the recipe from her aunt in Mexico City.
But it went well. So when Superbowl time rolled around, she and a friend combined resources for a watch party, featuring tamales, of course. De la Fuente brought chicken, her friend made pork — altogether about 100 tamales.
They were a huge hit.
“This is what happened: We came out and said let’s sell them. Let’s put it out there and make tamales. And we did,” she said on a recent afternoon after lunch rush. They posted a notice on Facebook that they were now taking orders for the tamales that so wowed the party-goers.
“All day, ding, ding, ding, ding,” de la Fuente said. By day’s end, they had orders for 500 tamales to be picked up the next day. They had to be picked up after five, because de la Fuente had a full-time job as a bilingual customer service agent at Mazuma Credit Union.
Tamales, it should be noted, are a labor-intensive dish. Dough has to be made and flattened, then the tamales are filled, wrapped and steamed. De la Fuente and her friend piled pots everywhere to make the orders, which they were able to complete because de la Fuente called in sick the next day.
She and her friend kept on for a while, limiting themselves to a couple hundred tamales to be sold through Facebook, first come-first served. But that July, de la Fuente learned that Lenexa was looking for vendors to fill its new Public Market at the City Center development.
“This is my dream. I always wanted to have a food truck or food something. I said I’m going to take this with both hands and go for it because I don’t want to miss the opportunity,” she said.
She approached the city, bringing some tamales to sample. The market manager, Carmen Chopp, liked the idea. But de la Fuente hit a snag when she found her friend couldn’t join her in the business.
She told Chopp she’d like to try the market, but was afraid she couldn’t because of her job. Chopp told her she could try the tamale business one day a week at the market to see how it went.
So de la Fuente made a deal with her boss. She’d work every Saturday if she could have Tuesdays off to sell tamales.
Her first day was Sept. 5, 2017, only four days after the market itself opened. She brought 500 tamales to sell from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. from chafing dishes set up in the upstairs kitchen area.
Within 45 minutes, she had sold them all. By the shift end, she had orders for 1,000 for the next week.
That meant she could need to bring another 1,000 to sell during the open hours as well. After many sleepless days of tamale making, de la Fuente texted her husband that she was quitting the day job.
Red Kitchen has remained busy, even during the slack post-Christmas months that have been the bane of other retailers. De la Fuente keeps the menu rotating, with different fillings, breakfast burritos and vegetarian offerings. She doesn’t have employees yet, but her mother, Amalia de la Fuente and daughter, Lesley Chubick, help out.
The city-run market has been a great thing, she says. City communications staffers advertised her business with signs and social media. And they’ve been supportive as she learns the ropes of running a business.
“They didn’t rush me and didn’t expect me to know it all. They have this word and I think that is exactly what it is: Incubator. That’s how I feel. You feel protected, you feel like they’ve got you,” she said.
Red Kitchen is open 7:30 a.m. to 2:30 or 3 Tuesdays through Sundays. De la Fuente said she wants to grow in her space, maybe eventually getting a liquor license so she can be open for dinner.
“This is a great place to start,” she says of the city market. “They want me to succeed and they have helped me to do that.”