Alumna discovers a new side of business through DCTC courses
Growing up in small village in Mexico, Noelia Garcia didn’t see much hope for prosperity. “We knew that in Mexico we would not have an opportunity to work. We decided to go to the United States to work, find a house, and build a life.” At 18, she and her husband Enrique, packed up and ventured off for the land of opportunity.
They were back in Mexico after only eight months. Noelia and her family gave it another try, back to the U.S. to achieve their dreams. This time, she went with one key element: a tamale recipe. That recipe would eventually change her life.
It was something she brought from her hometown, passed down generation to generation. Noelia and her family gathered during holidays and made the tamales by hand.
She continued that tradition when she moved to Minnesota. Not only did she make them for her family, she started to share with friends. One friend in particular, owner of a restaurant, asked if he could sell the tamales to his customers. “I said yes! Here I was working Monday through Friday, making tamales all weekend long. But that’s how everything got started.”
One thing led to another. That same friend started selling tamales to his co-workers. He also told her about a supermarket project in downtown Minneapolis. Developers were looking for people who wanted to run a business. By the time Noelia and her husband inquired about it, the only spot left was a coffee shop. “I happened to think the coffee shop complimented the tamales. That’s how we opened our first location on July 31st in 1999.” Their first location was Cafeteria La Loma.
In any new business, you lose money the first year, barely get by the second year, and just start to see profit the third year. Noelia and her husband had doubts of their dream succeeding. “I remember one sales day, I started crying because we only sold $100 that day. My husband worked 10 hours, we were very tired, and had to stay up at night to make the tamales for the next day,” Noelia said. Thanks to her husband, they kept going. He told her they couldn’t quit because they had to pay back their loans.
“We started seeing everything turn around after the third year.” Noelia and her husband adjusted their prices by just 50 cents and soon they started seeing a profit. They were also able to hire some help and buy their first computer. Pre-computer, they were putting checks and receipts into a shoebox! “We didn’t know any better,” she said.
It was around that time when Dakota County Technical College came into the picture. “I saw that our business was growing but there was a lot that I didn’t understand,” Noelia explained. With more employees, more issues, and risky decisions. She took the position, “Nobody cares about my business more than myself. If I don’t educate myself, I’m not going to be able to make the right decisions.”
Noelia started with English courses, three days each week. She went on for her GED and at her graduation, she remembered Harold Torrence, supervisory management instructor at DCTC. “He was advising us on our business and talked to me about college.” Only two months later, she was taking classes in Supervisory Leadership, Human Resource Development, Business Entrepreneurship, Supervisory Management, and Accounting.
“I finished 96 credits! What kept me going? I just wanted to keep learning more and more,” she said. For every course she took, she found a way to apply it to her business. “DCTC has really been worth it. Even if you’re successful in business, if you’re not prepared it’s a huge risk,” she said.
The next level was to open a wholesale factory. Noelia and Enrique jumped right in. Their tamales can be found in almost 160 grocery stores throughout the state- Lunds & Byerly’s, Cub Foods, and Kowalski’s Market.
Two years later, they opened a location in the Midtown Global Market in downtown Minneapolis and, in 2010, they opened a second location in Minneapolis. This year they opened a fifth location in St. Paul. “We have about 37 employees and we make one million tamales each year,” she said. “That’s a lot of tamales!” By the way, every tamale is made by hand.
On top of her natural business sense and wealth of education, Noelia has learned that it’s important to keep her employees involved. Every week, she holds a meeting with them to talk about any concerns, discuss how each location is doing, and ask for their input. “I learn the most from my employees. They are the ones who are there working every day and know best,” she said. Her employees even decide what the special should be each week.
Noelia’s siblings have become involved in her business and her mom visits often, to make tamales of course. “Let me tell you, my mom is the best judge of my tamales! She’ll say one doesn’t taste good, change this, change that. I say, ‘Mom, I don’t want to change that!’” The tamales still bring them together, as something that they share together. Now everyone who visits a La Loma Tamales location can also experience that. “We are sharing traditions, we are sharing values, we are sharing something of my culture and my country.”
I really want to say thank you to all of the professors at DCTC because they were so patient with me. I don’t speak English very well and they took everything, all the passion that they have to teach, Harold, and Bob, Scott, and when they share their knowledge and wisdom and everything I was able to come and apply that wisdom in my business and I can see the results. I’m more prepared and I have more confidence to make the right decisions. Education is definitely the key.
—Noelia Garcia, owner of La Loma Tamales