May 13, 2013

All in the Family:

Business spans four generations at La Borinqueña

By Natividad and Tina Ramos, as told to el Restaurante Mexicano Publisher Ed Avis

Editor’s Note: Business at La Borinqueña Mex-icatessen and Specialty Shop is clearly a family affair—and it has been since Rosa and Adriano Velasquez set up shop in Oakland, Calif. in 1944. In this first-person account, the founders’ daughter, 81-year-old Natividad Ramos (who still reports to work every Saturday), and her daughter, Tina Ramos (known as ‘Tina Tamale”), share the story of the store’s rise from barrio grocery to cafeteria-style restaurant, which last year expanded with a tamale truck to capitalize on the food truck craze.

Natividad: My mom and dad opened La Borinqueña in 1944. The place used to be a little Italian store, and then a man from New Mexico bought it. After a while he said, “Rosa, you buy it.” Rosa was my mom. She told the man she didn’t have any money, but he let her buy it on credit. People in the neighborhood chipped in and loaned her money to have change in the register.

Tina: It was a grocery store in the beginning. It was in the barrio in West Oakland, a neighborhood that had been Italian but transitioned to Latino. So there weren’t very many Hispanic markets—this was only the second in the area. The store provided staples for the family—tortillas, chiles, chorizo, and other canned products coming in from Mexico. 

Natividad: I was 12 when they opened the store. My sisters and I waited on customers, because my mom never really learned to speak English.  I met my husband, Antonio Ramos, in the store—he was a baker, and was very good looking. We got married a year later, when I was 17. We were married 57 years; we lost him in 2006.

In 1958 my parents sold us the store. They felt we were the best ones to keep it running, and it worked out well.  Little by little it became more of a restaurant. When Tina was born in 1969, my husband bought a steam table and wheeled it out to the back and we started serving tacos. We were already serving tamales, my mother’s specialty.

Tina: In 1971 we moved to a larger space that had been five storefronts. We had to remodel the building—it was a great place to play hide and seek! At that time there was a lot of construction in the neighborhood, so we would get white collar professionals sitting next to construction guys wearing muddy boots. We were everyone’s lunch place. By then we were a full-service, cafeteria-style restaurant. You could come in and eat there or take it to go. We served a lot of tamales, enchiladas, tacos, and made-to-order burritos. Burritos were a new thing back then—I remember hearing the story of how papa went to a catering truck and bought a thing called a “burrito” because he didn’t know how to make them.

Natividad: We took it apart to study it and see how to make it.

Tina: My involvement with the store was on and off. I was the rebel child—I would run away. In 1997 my sister, Isabel Esquivil, the general manager, said “Hey, I need you back.” At that point I had worked for other companies and had experienced other managers who weren’t my elders, so I think I was mindful that we needed procedures and a system of management. My father had to realize he was no longer “el patron.” Even though I think he wanted to step back, it was difficult for him to let go. We were just figuring out everyone’s place. 

Things started to change in the grocery in the late ‘90s. People started to see recipes in Bon Appetit and the San Francisco Chronicle, and they would call us up and say, “Do you carry chipotle?” The customers were happy to see that we spoke English, and mama started giving them recipes and advice. We also started getting requests for spices from other regions of Mexico, from customers who understood that Mexican food is regional, not all tacos and burritos. But that didn’t change the food on our menu. People want things the way they remember them. We have construction workers who were here 20 years ago and they come in with a big smile and say, “Can we get the Chile Colorado beef burrito?”

Natividad: We are on our fourth generation of customers. Sometimes we’ll see a young man come in and he’ll be surprised when we say, “How’s your mom? How’s your grandma?”

Tina: Isabel’s daughter Renee Esquivil joined the business in 2006. Up until then we were doing all the bookkeeping by hand. I still have some of my mother’s cigar boxes—that was her filing system. Renee had taken accounting classes and came in and started putting everything in Excel and found our ledger books really cute. Now we can track trends and sales, what departments are doing better. 

When Renee came in we decided I should be the marketing person and the spokesperson, so that’s when I became “Tina Tamale.” We started getting requests for tamales for special events.  We started doing more and more catering for meetings, family parties, and other events. For a while I did a “pop-up” restaurant, just a tent. Then last December I saw an ad on Craigslist for a food truck. It was already approved for tamales, and it turns out I knew the person who owned it. It was the rig of my dreams! The truck has full-color murals painted by a local artist, Joaquin Newman. My freestanding tamale cart rolls off the truck. Now I take it to festivals, mostly in Oakland and sometimes in San Francisco and Berkeley. I sell 200 to 500 tamales per event.

Tamales are important to us. Christmas week alone we sell a thousand dozen tamales. Because of our American lifestyle, most people don’t have the time to do what grandma did in the kitchen, but they still have a taste for what she made. They don’t want to get their fingers in the masa, but they want to eat the tamales!  Grandma started out making pork tamales, and over the years we started making other types. Now we have six varieties, including a sweet one and a true vegan tamale. All of them are gluten free.

What does the future hold? We just started having that conversation. None of us have children. One of my nieces is 22, so it may be time to reach out to her and see what she wants to do with her future, because I would hate for it to end here.

This isn’t a job. It isn’t a career. It’s a legacy.

May 13, 2013

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