The Tamale Factory and Tequila Bar near Duke University Hospital (2816 Erwin Rd.) has already created a buzz in Durham. Chef/Owner Margaritte Malfy knew that her menu would need those familiar Mexican food favorites like tacos, sopas (soups), ensaladas (salads), and a very interesting drink menu. However, the tamales are the star of the show and not just because they are so tasty. There’s a lot of thinking that went into them, from the ingredients to the people who put them together. Malfy was kind enough to share the background, as well as her journey in becoming a restauranteur and advice for anyone who’d like to follow suit.
We also included the Tamale Factory among our favorite ethnic restaurants in Durham.
Margaritte Malfy of the Tamale Factory and Tequila Bar
Arrival in North Carolina
Carl Hedinger: Where do you live in North Carolina and what brought you here? Do you like it here?
Margaritte Malfy: I currently live in Cary. We moved here seven years ago, one of my sisters has been here for about 15 years. Liza moved here from San Francisco about 15 years ago and my younger sister, Deb moved here from Pennsylvania about 10 years ago. We were born in Goldsboro, on Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, (one of the town’s Four Ps) and sort of moved around a bit. I ended up in New York City and stayed there for about 20 years! So you could say this is a bit of a homecoming of sorts, all three of us coming back South. I like it a lot, we love the proximity to the beaches and the mountains. We have also met some very wonderful people in North Carolina!
Becoming a Chef
CH: How did you become a chef and why did you want to focus on tamales?
MM: I started working in restaurants at the age of 14. I graduated from High School in Greensboro and with the money that I saved from being a server, I bought a one-way ticket on the now-defunct New York Air. I had $3,000 in cash in my pocket and no clue what kind of adventure I was in for! In New York, I worked in many restaurants and put myself through college. I went from a server to a bartender, to a floor manager, to a general manager and then I started doing my own catering. Then, I was offered a job as the Chef at a place called Telephone Bar and Grill, which was in the East Village of NYC. I loved it! That said, I worked alongside many Mexicans and I learned so much! I have also traveled extensively throughout Mexico and fell in love with the cuisines of the various regions and also with the people.
Becoming a Restauranteur
MM: I opened my first restaurant in 2001 in NYC and just took off from there. When I moved South, I was working in Sales for Sysco Foods and noticed how so many gas stations sold tamales in rural areas. Then, I started seeing local Durham places doing Tamale Nights. I had wanted to open a restaurant again, so I saw this as a sign and here we are! We have an extensive menu. It includes delicious appetizers such as deviled eggs with candied Serrano Chile, the best nachos, and so many other items. We also have several tacos, one of our most popular ones is the pork belly with fried pork rinds and avocado-tomatillo salsa. The drink list is quite extensive, we make all of our Margaritas and Specialty Craft cocktails using all fresh pressed juices.
The Tamale Factory
CH: Tell us about your staff and what makes them stand out among other restaurant crews in Durham.
MM: I have an awesome and dedicated staff. I hire people that I like and people that have an innate sense of hospitality, that is something that one can not teach. I adapted the paragraph below from a book called Setting the Table by Danny Meyer. That said I never mind training motivated people. We have been about a month now and have my staff are like a family for sure. I think that what sets them part is that they all really like being here, there is, of course, the money. That helps. However, they are all loyal people and we have the same ones that started with us at the beginning. We believe in laughing! We believe what makes us outstanding is our people.
The 51 Percent
MM: Everyone at Tamale Factory & Tequila Bar has been hired based on the belief that they embody “The 51 percent.” The 51 percent are those intangible aspects to one’s personality that we cannot teach or train—whether they are nice, intelligent, emotionally self-aware, with a strong work ethic and a desire to make people happy. The 49 percent are those technical proficiencies that we can or will teach as long as the other 51 percent are in place. Although the 49 percent is important, we place our greatest emphasis on the 51 percent. Along with “Enlightened Hospitality,” the 51 percent is the basis for all we do at Tamale Factory & Tequila Bar. Every action and reaction is performed with the 51 percent in mind. It is one of the tools we use to help keep us focused, on track and to gauge our goals.
You can learn about this idea and more inside Danny Meyer’s Setting the Table!
CH: As a chef/owner, what are you most proud of and want people to know about?
MM: I am most proud of where I am in this very moment, I have created a concept that people love and I have surrounded myself with people that are so happy to be working at Tamale Factory and Tequila Bar. Here, I’ve started over again! I am also so very proud of my children, Srijana and Neela, 14 and 12 years old. They are always willing to help when they can!!
Advice for Others
CH: Any advice you’d like to give to someone wanting to do what you’re doing?
MM: People always tell me that they want to open a bar or restaurant, I always say if you have not worked in one then you need to do that for at least a year. Its very hard work, many hours, and one has to be deeply committed and passionate to make it. One of my customers, James, comes in with his fiance Wendy and he told me one night that I lead with the heart. Passion and heart are very much needed!
Final Thoughts and Yours, Too!
The Tamale Factory and Tequila Bar can thrive in Durham’s competitive restaurant scene. The smart location choice, along with the amazing menu, and wonderful people behind it will hopefully keep this place busy for many years to come. If you ever get a chance to visit, prepare for a truly unique experience at one of Durham’s finest Mexican restaurants.
This interview with Margaritte Malfy is part of our series featuring the People of NC and North Carolina Food. Here, we’ve spotlighted folks from various walks of life, including brewery owner Sean Lilly Wilson, agrotourism business owner Lee Rankin, and more. Images come courtesy of Ryan Gilmore Photography.