Meet Your Merchant: Family tradition turns into successful business

Fidelina Suarez got up at 4 a.m. this morning with one mission in mind: Making tamales.

Thousands of them.

This week is one of the most productive of the year for Suarez, who planned to make about 4,000 of the corn husk-wrapped Mexican treats on Wednesday and today, providing a culinary staple common in many Latino households during the Christmas holiday.

Suarez, 40, owner of The Lady Tamales, has been making her well-known namesake in Carson City for six years in a tiny shop tucked behind a convenience store on Woodside Drive.

The restaurant features a few tables and an ordering window with a full view of Suarez's kitchen and tamaleras, the large pots that steam the tamales filled with meat or chilies and wrapped in masa, a corn-based dough.

Suarez's daughter, Maritza Garcia, 18, jokes that her mother should get a larger restaurant, but Suarez said she's content in her location - operating a larger store would mean more work, anyway.

Suarez said her business has grown into a successful venture, making her enough money to save up and put her children through school. Garcia is a first-year student at Western Nevada College with plans of going on to the University of Nevada, Reno to pursue a nursing degree, and another son is in medical school at UNR.

Her business started from what was a essentially a family tradition. Suarez got her recipe from her mother, who owned a restaurant in Mexico until 1984 when both of them moved to the United States.

She started making tamales for her children's schools and for her former employer of 14 years, United Engine and Machine Co. in Carson City.

"The teachers said they liked my tamales," Suarez said. "On the weekends I made tamales for extra money for my kids. But one day the health department gave me a ticket for having no license."

It was that ticket that Suarez said gave her an ultimatum: continue her work at United Engine as a machine operator or forgo her day job for a new career in the restaurant business.

She chose the latter and now averages about 600 tamales a day, selling them for $10 a dozen.

"And now I'm making a lot of money," she said, adding that 2009 has been a tough year for business.

"This is my first year not cooking for parties or Christmas business," Suarez said. "Nothing."

In previous years she'd see orders of $4,000 to $5,000, but this year those have dried up.

"Maybe next year," she said.


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