Tradition Makes Perfect

Ancestral recipe tamales are hot and getting hotter

When Noelia Urzua Vasquez left her tiny village of Quebrantadero in the Mexican state of Morelos 16 years ago to move to Minnesota, she brought along an enterprising nature that would eventually lead to her recognition by the National Association for Community College Entrepreneurship as the 7th Annual NACCE Entrepreneur of the Year.

As the winner of the prestigious national award, Noelia will attend the 7th Annual NACCE Conference, “Entrepreneurship: Finding Your Opportunity in Today’s Economy,” in Chicago, Ill., from October 11–14, 2009. NACCE awarded $1,000 to Dakota County Technical College, Noelia’s future alma mater, to support entrepreneurship.

After working in the Twin Cities food service industry for a few years, Noelia decided to flex her entrepreneurial muscles and, with her husband, Enrique Garcia Salazar, founded the La Loma Coffee Shop at Mercado Central, which was just opening in Minneapolis. The shop quickly blossomed as the busiest business at the popular Latin American marketplace.

Renting kitchen space by the hour, the couple watched as tamales soon emerged as the cornerstone of La Loma, which means “The Hill” in Spanish and refers to a notable landmark near Noelia’s hometown.

“I learned to make tamales from my mom, who ran a tamale business when I was growing up in Mexico,” Noelia said. “Making tamales involves a lot of hard work, but we discovered that people here really love them.”

Originated centuries ago by the Aztecs, tamales consist of steam-cooked, stone-ground corn dough, or masa, hand-wrapped in cornhusks or banana leaves, and available with a hefty range of fillings. La Loma makes tamales—all from traditional recipes—with different meats and salsas as well sweet varieties with corn, pineapple or raisins, and vegetarian varieties with beans, cheese or vegetables.

“I am drawn to the creative side of making tamales,” Noelia admitted. “I like developing new recipes and right now I’m working on creating two new kinds—chocolate tamales and black bean tamales.”

The modest coffee shop at Mercado Central, which evolved into Cafeteria La Loma, sells as many as 2,500 tamales a day. As it turned out, the venture was only the beginning for Noelia and Enrique, who have gone on to found La Loma Mexican Restaurants at the Midtown Global Market in Minneapolis and Plaza Latina in St. Paul, a catering business, and a wholesale tamale business that serves more than 260 stores in Minnesota and is on track to expand its sales nationwide.

La Loma also makes five kinds of atole, a hot Mexican beverage customarily served with tamales, and nearly 30 other specialty products. The company has 35 employees, many longstanding, and annual sales topping $2.5 million.

“In the next two months, we plan to open a new La Loma Coffee Shop in downtown Minneapolis,” Noelia said. “I will be working on the creative side of the business to make sure we have some new and delicious tamales for that location.”

Noelia credits much of her success to authoring thoroughly researched business plans and treating her employees like treasured members of her family.

“You have to look at what has been successful in the past when writing your business plan,” she said. “Once you know what works, you need to duplicate that in your own company and then develop a fresh plan each year.”

She went on to say that La Loma’s employees are the real key to why the company is prospering. “I believe in giving our employees power and authority in our business,” she said, “which gets amazing results because we are all working toward the same goal.”

Noelia also spotlights education as a crucially important component of any entrepreneurial journey. Five years ago, she decided to improve her English after realizing that she could no longer help her daughter with her homework.

“I started out just taking English classes, but my teacher encouraged me to get my high school diploma,” she said. “Once I had my diploma, I started thinking that I should go on and earn a college degree.”

She looked around at a few colleges, but quickly became frustrated by her initial experiences. Finally, she contacted Harold Torrence, a DCTC supervisory and multicultural management instructor she had met while taking adult education courses.

“I called Harold and right away he got very excited,” she said. “We made plans to meet on a Thursday and by the following Tuesday I had started classes at DCTC.”

Torrence points to Noelia’s admirable work ethic blended with a unique and strong leadership style as the main reasons La Loma continues to expand, growing at a rate of 17 percent annually.

“Noelia and Enrique’s consistency and humility have provided a solid platform for their entrepreneurial spirit, and their authenticity and enthusiasm are contagious,” he said. “Because of their ‘yes, I can’ approach to family and business, wherever they go, people will open their doors with a smile.”

“I believe in giving our employees power and authority in our business, which gets amazing results because we are all working toward the same goal.”

Lisa Bah, the director of business and management in the DCTC Continuing Education and Customized Training division, sees La Loma as exemplifying the age-old adage of “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps.”

“We’re so proud of Noelia and Enrique’s determination to make La Loma what it is today,” Bah said. “They’ve spent countless hours not only learning through DCTC, but also offering their time and support to mentor others with dreams of entrepreneurship.”

Noelia has taken the full array of Business Entrepreneur courses at DCTC, building a dynamic relationship with Bob Voss, the award-winning instructor of the program. She praised Voss’ teaching style as both exceptionally informative and lots of fun. She looks forward to earning her A.A.S. degree in Supervisory Management along with three related business certificates by May of 2010.

“I’m going on to get my degree in accounting at DCTC,” she added. “I’m really good with numbers—and I know how important understanding the financial piece is for any business owner.”

The head of sales and operations at La Loma, Enrique Garcia echoes his wife’s desire to keep growing personally and professionally. He notes that their company’s product line is constantly expanding to meet the needs of both established and future customers.

“I am showing my daughter that I can do it—and if I can do it, she can do it.”

Noelia’s recognition as the 7th Annual NACCE Entrepreneur of the Year is not her or her husband’s first time in the limelight. In 2006, the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Minnesota named the Noelia and Enrique to the prestigious list of 25 on the Rise, an award that recognizes 25 Hispanic men and women under the age of 40 from around the state who have contributed immensely to their communities. A year later, the Latino Economic Development Center honored Noelia with the Empresaria Latina Award for her entrepreneurial leadership and work as a community role model.

“I’m very excited and honored to receive the NACCE award, which I believe belongs to everyone at La Loma,” Noelia said. “I do my very best everyday, but I couldn’t succeed without the support of my husband, my family and the great people in our company.”

She also thanked DCTC for providing an essential ingredient in her life. “When I first started at DCTC, I didn’t know very much about running my own company,” she said. “By enrolling in business programs at the college, I learned about finance, leadership, human resources and entrepreneurship. I am showing my daughter that I can do it—and if I can do it, she can do it.”

When she’s not working or studying, Noelia enjoys spending time with Enrique and their two children, Maria, 15, and Carlos, 7. She also loves to garden and complete home improvement projects with her husband.