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How to survive selling tamales

Bring your work ethic. Not the one collected at a motivational seminar. You’ll need the kind born out of being a teenaged, migrant farmworker.

At least that’s how Roxy Cantu got started. When a growing baby-to-be finally outmatched her Mama’s ability to weed sugar beets, Mama moved into town —Riverton— and found a new way to provide.

“Rain, shine, snow, wind, heat… Maybe I get an extra tan, or a little frozen, but I’m out here, no matter what, until the tamale’s are gone,” she said with a smile. The smile is well known around Lander, Riverton, Arapahoe, Fort Washakie, Ethete and Shoshoni, but few know the name that goes with it. Mostly she’s known as “The Tamale Lady”.

It’s a term of endearment.

“Out here,” is a supermarket parking lot in Lander. It’s early on a Monday afternoon, and though she’s already visited the 30 or 40 offices and shops that expect her each Monday morning — first the pet groomer’s with Miss Caroline’s breakfast burrito, then door-to-door down Main Street — business has been slow. She still has 10 dozen tamales to sell, about a quarter of what she started with. It could be a long day.

No matter. She’ll wake at three tomorrow morning to steam the next day’s batch, regardless, just as she did this morning.

Her tried and true pitch, “Any tamales today?,” asked of passers by, hasn’t been producing today. But, things start to look up when a late model mini-van slow-cruises her parking spot.

The van circles the row. On the second pass, the driver lowers her window, and stage whispers “Do you have any beef left?”, before glancing in her side-view mirror as though checking for a tail.

She gets a smile and a nod from Roxy.

Eight years in, the family business — Roxy’s “the face” of the enterprise, her mother- and father-in-law do most of the cooking — is completely above board. All the required permits are said to be on file. The police and supermarket management know, and tacitly approve, of her use of the lot.

Yet, folks often approach the transactions like an illicit, black market exchange.

It’s one of those things you get used to.

Like the reactions you get from receptionists — “Oh oh oh! You have Tamales?” Or the hard lines still held by Riverton police. (“They’re… more intense”).  And the ebb and flow of demand. (Plan to sell more during the school year, less during the summer).

Learn to anticipate customer burn-out. Give those showing symptoms a two week break. Otherwise, stick to your rounds. People count on you for breakfast.

Build time into the schedule for customers that like to chat, and those who are good with a story.

Keep an eye on text messages and Facebook. Someone who missed you elsewhere is likely desperate to track down lunch.

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Remember why you’re out there in the first place. In Cantu’s case, that’s the four girls at home, and the community she’s stitched together, door-to-door. (“If I ever quit… there are customers who would never forgive me.”)

And, of course, you’ve got to make great tamales.

You can ask the Tamale Lady for the recipe if you don’t know how. But don’t expect to get anything more than a smile.

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One Response to How to survive selling tamales

  1. Clarinda May 5, 2017 at 8:19 am #

    She is an awesome lady and I love her tamales!

    Fort washakie , Wyoming

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