Steve Barker’s tamales and salsa didn’t immediately lend themselves to the idea of a brick-and-mortar location. His story before setting up shop in Grapevine, Texas, is one that many restaurant owners and operators are familiar with. Barker began selling his tamales out of the back of his pickup truck. He drove to tractor supply stores, banks, and car dealerships, anywhere there were hungry people. He was later invited to the farmers’ market in Grapevine, where he and his wife, JoAnn, would set up three days a week, every week for six years. Rain, sleet, snow, or shine, the Barkers and their tamales were there. After that first year, customers kept asking where he was going next and where they could keep buying his products.
Tommy Tamale Market & Cafe opened its first permanent location in Grapevine in 2015, and its second location in August 2018. The Barkers and their team hope to build on the 1,000 five-star Yelp reviews their restaurant has received. Steve Barker recently spoke with QSR about Tommy Tamale and what it means to him to serve his guests and support local businesses.
Why do you call Tommy Tamale a “Market & Cafe?"
We have over 70 different types of salsa, so that’s where the market aspect came into it. We were always selling salsa and tamales. We love supporting local people, too. There will be other people in our area that might make salsa or they might make a particular product that is near and dear to them that’s food-related, and a lot of times we like to support those people because we believe in supporting local mom and pops. I think we’re seeing a trend of people that are loving to go backwards, so to speak, and start supporting more of the mom and pop, more of the unique.
What’s been most critical to your success?
Something I always had the heart for was to greet and encourage people. I love serving people; my wife and I both do, and we fit right into that here in our store. If you go look at our reviews, I’ve got over 1,000 five-star reviews on Yelp, and it all talks about how great they were treated because we treat people just like family. It’s a culture thing. I don’t think that’s something you see everywhere. We all just go in and we eat dinner and we leave. You had two dozen places you could have gone for lunch today, and you came here. We make people know how much we appreciate them, and I think that’s the incredible part of the dining experience.
You’ve had your second location for just over a year. What advice do you have for industry newcomers?
One of the biggest things in this business is to keep your overhead low. I think that is critical. Everything today is expensive. Every vacant spot that you see—I don’t care what city you’re looking at—they are all expensive. The biggest thing is to get advice. I’m always looking for advice from people that know more than I do. I’m starting to get more humbled, and I ask for people’s advice. The guy who’s already been before me can give me advice whether or not I receive it. That’s up to me.