Tamales, a traditional Christmas treat for the Latino community, can generally be found in Clark County through unusual channels.
A barista slips a small piece of paper with a neatly written phone number across the bar; a shopkeeper tells of a woman who stops by on certain days; a woman at the grocery store says someone sells them at her church.
While some local tamale makers have the official permits needed to sell their product, others remain in the shadows, making it difficult for consumers to find tamales and ensure that they’re safely prepared. It also prevents the would-be business owners from growing legitimate lucrative businesses.
One key to understanding why tamale sales mostly exist in the shadow economy is Clark County Public Health’s fee structure, which charges high fees to start a small business selling these steamed corn-husk-wrapped masa and meat cakes.
In addition, regulations don’t allow for restaurant pop-ups or direct sales through social media sites (the most common way to start a microbusiness). The current categories fit more conventional businesses like restaurants and caterers. As a result, permits and their attached fees are unclear to inspectors and would-be business owners.
Food safety rules
Clark County Public Health has the important mission of protecting the public from hazardous food products. “Our whole job is to prevent disease in humans,” said Dave Peterson, environmental health specialist at Clark County Public Health.
Tamales fall into a category of higher-risk foods for those tasked with protecting public health. Brigette Bashaw, program manager for food safety at Clark County Public Health, notes that the plan approval process for complex foods such as tamales takes about a month and is complicated because it involves heating and cooling higher risk and more potentially hazardous foods.
Bashaw prefers to go through this process ahead of time and offer preventive measures.
“I don’t want someone to go through advertising, hiring people, and buying food then find out they aren’t licensed. I don’t want to be the one who shut them down,” she said.
The agency’s 11 inspectors are paid through the fees they collect. Fees are adjusted every year based on projected expenses for the year.
“The fee calculation process we use at Clark County Public Health has been in place since the mid-2000s and has been reviewed by the Washington State Auditor’s Office on at least two occasions; each time the process was given a clean bill of health,” said Jeff Harbison, administrative services director for Clark County Public Health.
This 100 percent cost-recovery fee structure is meant to avoid using taxpayer money to pay for food safety. Nonetheless, the money to pay for food safety must come from somewhere.
Unusual business model
To start a tamale business, a microbusiness owner rents a commercial kitchen. They typically use word of mouth and/or social media to advertise. They then sell their products directly to the public to pick up at a central location. Some offer home delivery. This business model isn’t specifically listed on Public Health’s fee schedule, making it unclear to business owners and Public Health officials what type of license is required and how much the fees should be.
Holly Hansen, owner of Second Mile Marketplace, runs a commissary kitchen. She’s witnessed the problems created by lack of clarity and high fees in Public Health’s fee schedule. According to Hansen, one business owner spent $500 on licenses through Clark County Public Health only to be later told by a Public Health inspector that they had the wrong permit. They then had to purchase additional permits to operate their business and didn’t receive a refund for the improper license.
Another business owner was told by a Public Health staff member to get a temporary event license for multiple days despite the fact that the business owner didn’t have any events scheduled. Hansen cautioned the owner against obtaining this license because it may not cover the dates that are eventually scheduled.
“It’s ridiculously unfair to small businesses to charge at least $2,000 to start a business selling tamales. It’s over $1,000 just to look at the paperwork. If you’re a multimillion-dollar business, you only pay $2,500.”
A question of fees
Hansen recognizes the importance of food safety, but doesn’t think the inspectors should be paid solely through the fees they collect. “I get it, because food safety is so important. It’s so easy to get someone sick but you stick a price on it like that, and you welcome a black market,” she said.
The crux of the problem, according to Hansen, is the way the Public Health Department is funded.
“The Public Health Department shouldn’t be self-supporting. It’s stupid that they have to pay for themselves. Police don’t hold a bake sale to pay for their services. The fire department doesn’t have a bazaar to raise funds,” Hansen said.
In addition, fees change every year. Last year, despite the fact that COVID-19 caused many food businesses to struggle, fees were sharply increased. Hector Hinajosa owns Foody Blues BBQ and Jo Foody Catering. He’s run a barbecue booth at the Vancouver Farmers Market for 15 years. Hinajosa had to give up his catering license this year because the fees for both businesses sharply increased.
“I understand what those fees are for; inspectors make sure everyone’s doing a safe job. I’m for that. I want to eat food that isn’t going to make me sick. I can see fees increase because people have to be paid, but it was a surprise when I heard the price of the market permit. I was taken aback. The Public Health department said I could pay in installments. We decided to get the market permit and cater with the market menu. We couldn’t afford both licenses,” Hinajosa said.
According to Bashaw, program manager for food safety at Clark County Public Health, the fees for starting a tamale business are around $2,000 to $3,000. After that, the fees are around $1,000 per year. That means if a business owner is able to make a $1 profit per tamale, they would have to make at least 3,000 tamales to break even. Every year, they would have to make 1,000 tamales just to pay the yearly fee. According to one tamale maker, it takes a full day (8 a.m. to 11 p.m.) to make 40 dozen, or 480, tamales.
The Washington Department of Agriculture provides food processor licenses to allow for the sale of food in the state of Washington. The annual fee is around $92. This includes plan review and inspection. To obtain this type of license, a vendor must be selling wholesale items and not retail items. Wholesale means selling to another vendor (like a grocery store or cafe) and that vendor sells directly to the public. According to Will Satak, the department’s regional manager for Southwest Washington, vegetarian tamales would fall into this category but tamales with beef, chicken or pork can’t be licensed through the department.
Satak notes that the agency’s licensing fees are vastly lower than the county’s because the state agency isn’t solely supported through licensing fees. Satak previously was a food inspector for Mason County and notes that county public health agencies’ funding is at the mercy of the county. Satak’s position at the state relies on a more varied and generous operating fund.
Marcela Munoz is one of the many would-be business owners who would like to sell her tamales to generate extra income to supplement her family’s modest finances. Munoz runs a berry farm with her husband. The couple sells their fruit at the Salmon Creek Farmers Market for three to four months a year. Munoz wants to start her own food business to bring in income for the rest of the year. She’s made tamales for community gatherings and for her kids’ classmates and teachers. They’ve all told her that she should start a business.
Munoz approached Ann Foster, organizer of the Salmon Creek Farmers Market, to get information about starting her business. Munoz discovered that the fees through Public Health would be more than $1,000. She also would have to pay for equipment and food and rent a commercial kitchen for about $15 per hour.
“People like myself are eager to work, so we don’t care what we have to do, but I love making tamales. If they could make it less money, that would be great for people like me to start a business,” she said.
Customers can buy tamales at more conventional businesses in Clark County. Dulce Tentacion, a grocery store and bakery in the Fourth Plain Business District, offers fresh tamales filled with chicken, pork, cheese and veggies, and sweet corn every day ($2.50 per tamale, $27 for a dozen).
Owner Salvador Larios operates an on-site commercial kitchen where his wife and daughter roll and steam 1,000 tamales per week to place in a glass case by the register.