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Alicia’s Tamales Makes the Leap From La Cocina to 44 Whole Foods Stores

Just in time for Christmas tamales

Alicia’s Tamales Los Mayas/Facebook

Alicia Villanueva thinks of her food business, Alicia’s Tamales Los Mayas, as a child that’s starting to grow up. “It’s like, when it was just in my kitchen, my business was in kindergarten,” she says. “Now that I’ve got to Whole Foods, I feel like my baby is going to high school.”

Villanueva’s business did, in fact, receive some formal education: In 2010, Alicia’s Tamales Los Mayas graduated from La Cocina, a Mission-based nonprofit that provides kitchen space and financial training for talented women entrepreneurs like Villanueva. In a few short years, Villanueva has taken her tamales from her kitchen in Berkeley to a dedicated facility in Hayward, where she and her 14 employees have a capacity to make 24,000 tamales a month.

Her latest order is her biggest yet: All 44 Whole Foods stores in Northern California are stocking Alicia’s Tamales Los Mayas, just in time for the traditional Christmas tamale season. “We feel so, so happy, my team and my family,” says Villanueva. “I really want to honor the opportunity that Whole Foods gave me, so I want to do my very best for them.”

Alicia Villanueva
Alicia’s Tamales Los Mayas

“We’re really excited to see Alicia in Whole Foods,” echoes Caleb Zigas, La Cocina’s executive director. “Their in-store staff has taken the time to get to know La Cocina businesses, and they’re a valuable strategic partner.” Beyond supporting businesses like Alicia’s Tamales, Whole Foods is giving back to the nonprofit in a big way, donating 5 percent of all SF store profits on Thursday, January 11, to La Cocina.

On Whole Foods shelves, Villanueva is stocking her vegetarian Oaxacan cheese tamales as well as her vegan tamales. In general, she uses the same recipes she learned as a girl from her mami and abuelita in Mazatlán, a coastal town in the Mexican state of Sinaloa. But the vegan tamales are her own creation: “I think it works really good, because it’s delicious,” she says.

Villanueva’s food business isn’t her only baby: She and her husband Pedro have three children, Peter, Pablo and Grecia. The older boys have expressed interest in pursuing their own education, in business, to help run Alicia’s Tamales. “I really want to make a really nice thing, a very confident business for my kids,” says Villaneuva. She’d also like to make a positive impact in her community, perhaps with her own foundation.

Someday, “little by little... I really want [my business] to go to college, to play in the big big leagues,” Villanueva says. For her, that would mean “a recognized business worldwide.”