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A homegrown tamale business takes off
Islander Patty Freebourn’s dream of sharing Hispanic culture and traditional food with Vashon reached a major milestone this week, as both IGA and Thriftway began selling Patty’s Tamales.
Many already know Freebourn and her tamales from the Vashon Farmers market, where her booth has drawn long lines. The tamales have also been popular at the Tacoma Farmers Market, and may soon be headed to Costco or Trader Joe’s.
“The tamales have taken over,” Freebourn said last week with a laugh. “I’m just trying to catch up with them.”
Freebourn’s road to entrepreneurial success began when she was a little girl in Mexico, she said, waking up to the smells of her grandmother’s freshly made tortillas, salsa and tamales.
“I always wanted to cook like her. Being happy eating my grandmother’s food … this is what I wanted to see in others from my own cooking,” Freebourn said.
Born in Mexico, Freebourn grew up extremely poor after her father died when she was a baby. Freebourn’s mother brought her family to the U.S. in the hopes of making a better life for them. Freebourn was 11 years old when they moved to California and her mother got work sewing in a factory.
“I was sad when we first left Mexico. It was very hard. None of us spoke English,” Freebourn remembered. “But we survived, and I am glad we did it.”
Eventually her family moved to Utah and Freebourn went to school, ultimately earning her credentials as a Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN). She married and started a family of her own, and moved from Phoenix to Vashon in 2008 to help care for her brother-in-law, Jim Freebourn, the former owner of Blooms & Things, who was ill with cancer.
“I worked in hospitals for a long time as an LPN, and all I ever wanted was to make people happy,” she explained. “But that was hard in the hospital. It just wasn’t the right place for me.”
Having never lost her desire to cook, Freebourn went back to school at the age of 43 to become a chef. After graduating from a culinary program in Seattle, with no business spaces that suited her needs available on the island, she decided to host a booth at the Farmers Market.
“I realized that I wanted to bring my culture to Vashon.” she said. “I thought about my grandmother’s cooking, and I thought ‘Everybody loves tamales.’ I love making them. But I wasn’t sure if Vashon was ready for tamales.”
Tamales are a traditional Mesoamerican food that dates as far back as 8,000 to 5,000 BC. Consisting of masa (corn-based dough) with various meat, cheese or vegetable fillings, they are wrapped in leaves or corn husks, which are discarded after steaming or boiling the tamale. Freebourn makes her tamales from scratch, using GMO- and gluten-free masa and a variety of fillings, including a vegan option. Until she is able to secure her own space to work from, Freebourn will make her fare at Express Cuisine two days a week.
“I make them the way my grandmother did. It’s all about the flavor,” Freebourn said. “You get the flavor from the first bite to the very end — this is what makes people happy.”
Islanders were happy and more than ready for Patty’s Tamales, as it turned out. When Freebourn first set up her booth at the Farmers Market last September, she prepared 200 tamales to sell. By December, she was having to prepare over 1,000. On the market’s last day in December, people were lined up at her booth a half hour before the market opened.
“It was crazy. I never expected that,” she said.
Nor did she expect the demand that followed.
To help spread the word about her business, Freebourn put a Patty’s Tamales logo on the side of her car. Now, she says, she can’t go anywhere in the car without people approaching her about buying tamales.
“It happens almost everywhere I go,” she said, “but that’s what got me thinking about branching out, so I’d have somewhere to send people.”
Forging ahead, Freebourn contacted the local grocery stores.
“They were so supportive and really excited,” she said.
At IGA, owner Shawn Hoffman said he is happy to carry Patty’s Tamales, which he has tried himself and calls “fantastic.” He noted that he has been looking to get more locally made food on his shelves.
“They’re good and available now,” he said.
Seemingly unstoppable, Freebourn is also working to get her tamales on the shelves at Trader Joe’s and Costco. She has sent samples to Trader Joe’s to be tested, one step in the store’s process of considering new products.
“People like the tamales, and that is what I wanted all along, but there’s more I can do with this,” she said. “If I can make my business successful, that will help bring visibility to the Hispanic community here.”
Freebourn says there is a growing Hispanic community on Vashon that needs support and awareness, something she hopes she and her business can help with.
“The Vashon community should know that we are here. We are not just Third World. We are here to give and contribute. We have so much to offer,” she said, noting that some Hispanics on Vashon have college degrees but cannot use them in the U.S. because of the language barrier.
“And there are also many who have almost nothing and are struggling, and I remember from my own experiences what that is like,” she said.
To that end, Freebourn belongs to a group called the Hispanic Community of Vashon, which meets every few months. The group recently brought the Latin dancers to the Strawberry Festival parade; it is working on finding English language classes for those who need them, and one of its biggest projects has been raising money to send children from the Hispanic community to preschool and kindergarten — something many cannot typically do for lack of funds.
“There are so many issues. ... My work is only beginning, and I see my business as a way to help on many levels,” she said.
As Freebourn looks to the future of her fast-growing tamale business, she has her sights set firmly on her own retail space and kitchen, where she might start to sell her popular salsa as well.
“I never knew where this was going to go. It’s so exciting right now,” she said with a grin. “And here I thought that Vashon wasn’t ready for tamales. But I wasn’t ready for Vashon.”