Tamale Lady Finds Success In Courthouse Basement

By Jennifer Hall
St. Joseph News-Press, Mo.

The “tamale lady” has her own restaurant.

It was only by happenstance that Brigid Smith saw the vacant cafe inside the Buchanan County Courthouse. Her son’s speeding ticket caused the St. Joseph woman to be walking by the closed-up shop in the building’s basement.

“I said, ‘that’s just perfect for me,'” she said. “Because I cannot afford to go out and open up a restaurant and buy all those things, like equipment and stuff.”

Ms. Smith learned to make tamales years ago and began selling them door-to-door out of necessity. With two children in private school and growing sports careers, the single mom was looking to supplement her income.

“People got to know me by that,” she said.

Her tamales made appearances at area festivals and events, and she began adding to her menu. In the last five years, she has been including pulled pork, ribs and a cheeseburger.

The mainstays to her business can be found on her menu at Claudia’s Kitchen. Ms. Smith opened the restaurant, named after her daughter, just five months ago.

Other entrepreneurs had approached commissioners about the gig in the restaurant space.

“They decided to give me a chance at it,” Ms. Smith said. “I guess it was good timing. And God knew where I was supposed to be.”

For about 25 years prior to her recent stretch in the food industry, Ms. Smith was in social work.

“But I decided to quit doing that and do something I actually liked,” she said.

The San Francisco native grew up around mom-and-pop eateries. Her parents had their own.

“It relaxes me,” she said of cooking. “It’s my element. Cooking is my thing.”

Claudia’s is open from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday in the basement of the courthouse. There are daily specials from slow-roasted beef and hoagie sandwiches to homemade potato salad and cherry pie. But Ms. Smith said Thursdays’ special is the favorite. Her ham and beans and cornbread draws more, even those outside of the courthouse.

And reaching the community outside the Downtown building can be difficult. Ms. Smith said 90 percent of her business is from the employees inside. Yet there are a good handful that venture past the metal detectors to grab a good meal.

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