A tiny tortilla restaurant Tatemô in Houston that struggled to get off the ground has just been nominated for a 2023 James Beard Award for best new restaurant. It epitomizes an eatery that overcame various start-up struggles on its windy path to success.
When chef Emmanuel Chavez and partner Megan Maul were looking to launch their own tortilla restaurant in Houston, Tx. in 2019, they encountered problems raising capital. Then the pandemic hit and made their fund raising that much more difficult. Sometimes things go awry.
After a variety of ups and several downs, the duo opened Tatemô in March 2022, what Maul described as a “humble, 13-seat tasting menu restaurant that focuses on restoring the value of maiz,” or corn. In Mexico, farmers grow maiz.
Overcoming obstacles became a way of life for the duo in their restaurant development. Chavez, an immigrant from Mexico, started experimenting with making tortillas in his home, which led to posting a photo of them on an Instagram account. That resulted in an offer from a local farmer’s market to join as a vendor and contributed to its joining a ghost kitchen space in 2020 to scale their tortilla production, and hosting Saturday night private dinners for six guests at a time.
The two partners invested $10,000 from personal savings to get the business off the ground and then added $25,000 for equipment and cosmetic upgrades to open its brick-and-mortar space, so they achieved their goals on a relatively modest budget.
The pandemic changed their course as well. They were expecting to open a larger restaurant offering three-meals a day, but the pandemic set them back and made them realize that a smaller-scale eatery devoted to tortillas would suit them better.
All of the steps along the way were beneficial, cited Chavez. “It helped us understand the vision of what we were going to be, define our style in cooking and service, and know that we can turn something small, not flashy, into a profitable operation,” he said.
Its space measures 1,100 square feet including front of the house and kitchen area, and it has seven employees, besides the two of them.
A compact restaurant in Houston Tatemô dedicated to tortillas and maiz has earned recognition but wants to stay true to itself, rather than expand and multiply.
A tasting menu emerged
Tatemô offers two different approaches to its guests. It has become known for its tasting menu, served Thursday to Saturday, which offers $125, seven-course meal, not including tax and tip. Guests bring their own alcohol to keep the price of dinner down.
Maul explained that the tasting menu is “maiz-inspired so each course features different masa techniques or inspirations.” The maiz enables them to make tortillas, and then they add toppings including many vegetarian offerings as well as short ribs. Other times it offers casual a-la-carte dining for lunch and brunch.
Its seven courses include Texas ribeye, plantains tortilla, a fried quesadilla stuffed with Oaxacan cheese, served with crema and caviar with strawberry cake for dessert.
Maul said the tasting menu is at the core of their business model. Although they can only serve 26 people at two seatings a night, it can control its food costs and keep them down, not waste any food, and know exactly what to expect.
Though the seven courses offer fine-dining and some may consider it pricey, many patrons come there for special occasions such as birthdays, anniversaries, graduations or job promotions and turn it into a celebration.
To expand revenue, it also sells masa by the pound, tortillas by the dozens, homemade salsas, which constitute about 15% to 20% of their revenue.
What the James Beard Award represents
Maul believes that the James Beard nomination goes beyond recognition for Tatemô. “It’s for the entire city and bringing eyes to a growing Houston food scene that is not getting looked for the incubator of rising chefs and concepts that it is.” Many of these former pop-up eateries opened brick-and-mortar spaces, which Maul said they like to point out “all started in the parking lot.”
The nomination has brought in new customers, given them national recognition, but as Chavez put it, “We still have only 13 seats.”
But the award also intensified the “pressures” it faces, Chavez revealed. “People expect us to start branching out, open multiple locations but it doesn’t work like that,” he said.
Instead it has plans to open a tortilleria, or a dedicated production space to make many of its masas and tortillas, rather than add another restaurant.
What has the duo learned about keeping a restaurant alive through its several detours? Chavez replied, “It speaks to embracing and learning from failure and that you have to learn to adapt and you can’t ever stay complacent.”