Tamale Factory bringing big crowds to Gregory

By Emily Van Zandt Originally Published May 9, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated May 7, 2013 at 3:49 p.m.
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PHOTO BY: Rusty Hubbard

Donna Wallis works in the kitchen at the Tamale Factory in Gregory, preparing ingredients for the tamales made there. She is also part of the wait staff when the restaurant is open on Fridays and Saturdays.

GREGORY — The dining room may only be open for business on Fridays and Saturdays, but work at the Tamale Factory rarely slows down.

Opened in November, the tamale and steak-centric spot owned by George Eldridge and located on his farm is filled on Mondays and Tuesdays with the spicy smell of simmering tamale fillings and the busy hands of tamale cooks Donna Wallis and Shirley Western. On Wednesday, the farm’s focus reverts back to a working horse ranch, where Eldridge and trainer Rob McDonald raise quarter horses from babies to yearlings to sell in Oklahoma City. Thursdays mean deliveries for the restaurant, and by Friday, the crew is ready for another busy night of service.

The farm, which has been in the Eldridge family since the 1800s, sits on 25 acres with enough for the barn-restaurant combo plus the family house, a pasture and a pond. In 1988, Eldridge opened the Little Rock outpost of Doe’s Eat Place, bringing in hot tamales first from Greenville and then from a Newport-based tamale factory that Eldridge bought. Eventually, he built a new tamale plant in Augusta, building the business before selling. But when that factory shut down a few years ago, Eldridge was stuck. It was either stop selling tamales or find a new spot. And losing the tamales was never an option.

“We sell around 3,000 a week at Doe’s, and 1,000 here at the new place,” Eldridge said. “They’re more of an appetizer, and almost everybody orders a few for the table.”

So Eldridge obtained the right permits to begin making the tamales at home.

“It was just a pain,” Eldridge said.

With work already under way to finish a large barn and arena next to the house, Eldridge decided to take his tamale-making business a step further.

“It took a year to build, and we did it all ourselves,” Eldridge said.

A barn and arena are kept completely separate from the dining room and kitchen area of the restaurant, accessible through a door in the back room but always visible through sets of strategically placed windows.

During dinner, Eldridge often has one or two of his young quarter horses running around in the arena, to the delight of any children in the restaurant.

“They just love it,” Eldridge said. “And once you get the children hooked, … the parents have to come along again, too. We see lots of families.”

So many people are returning to the Tamale Factory for dinner each weekend that waits can stretch into an hour, and reservations are strongly recommended.

“We get people from all over the area,” said Wallis, who doubles as a server on weekends. “People have come from Mississippi and Memphis, too.”

Wallis, who lives in nearby Augusta, said area residents were thrilled to have a quality restaurant option in the area, rather than having to drive to Searcy or Little Rock. Eldridge was counting on that pull, along with the yearly influx of duck hunters to the region, when he first decided to open the restaurant.

“We’re drawing from a 50-mile radius,” Eldridge said. “When we first opened, it was the beginning of duck season, and things took off right from the start.”

Things were so busy in the first few weeks that Wallis recalls the kitchen running out of popular items, unable to keep up with the surge in demand.

With several months now under its belt, the Tamale Factory has settled into a familiar groove. Wallis and Western are able to keep up with the thousands of weekend hot-tamale orders, thanks to five hours of cooking and seasoning ground beef each week, followed by an entire day of cutting and hand-wrapping each tamale.

“I get in at 6 a.m., and I’ll be here until 3:30 or even 5,” Western said of Wednesday tamale processing. Western has been making tamales for Eldridge for 20 years and still craves the taste of the spicy snacks. Just don’t ask her for the breakdown of the spice blend.

“It’s a secret, those seasonings,” Western said. “That’s what keeps people coming back.”

Staff writer Emily Van Zandt can be reached at (501) 399-3688 or evanzandt@arkansasonline.com.

Associate Features Editor Emily Van Zandt can be reached at .