Fat Mama’s ready to celebrate 20 years in business

Published 12:00 am Sunday, June 7, 2009

NATCHEZ — David Gammill rolled, wrapped and tied his first tamale at age 4 and 6 he had the technique mastered.

He never expected what started out as a regular activity at a family barbecue to turn into a full-blown business ready to celebrate its 20th anniversary. But that is exactly what happened for the owner of Fat Mama’s Tamales.

The restaurant will celebrate its anniversary on Tuesday. Hours will be regular on the day but things will be “in a more celebratory mood,” Gammill said.

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Gammill’s parent’s, Jimmy and Britton Gammill, opened the business in its original log cabin location in 1989, but Gammill said formulating the now famous tamale recipe started long before the doors opened.

“We were having a party by the pool and for some reason my mom and dad started making tamales,” Gammill said. “The first batch was awful and from then on they said the recipe needed more salt or more pepper and whenever she could, my mom would serve my sister and me tamales.

“We might be having something else for supper but on the side there would be a tamale.”

The recipe took a couple of years of trial-and-error to get right, but once the recipe was perfected the Gammills decided to try their hand at selling the treat. David said his parents were shocked a little by the business’s initial popularity.

“They planned for the first day to just see how things would go, and they sold out,” he said. “So they went home, adjusted, came back the second day and sold out again. Since then, it hasn’t really stopped.”

And he should know, since he was practically raised in the restaurant. Gammill was 7 when Fat Mama’s opened its doors in the log cabin on Canal Street.

“We were always at the restaurant,” he said. “I remember for a time taking naps on a pallet in the back. I was always around, in, on top of Fat Mama’s.”

Gammill said he has tried to keep a running tally of the number of tamales sold since the business opened. He said in 2000 the restaurant eclipsed the 10,000 dozen mark and estimates that Fat Mamas has probably sold between 200,000 and 250,000 dozen in the first 20 years.

“With the volume we sell here, its easy to get the (roll, wrap and tie) technique down,” Gammill said. “Repetition is the key and here there is a lot of repetition.

And in those years, the biggest change to the restaurant has been the move to a new location on the corner of Canal and Washington. But despite a bigger building, Gammill wanted to make sure customers were getting the same Fat Mama’s experience they were accustomed to.

“The atmosphere here has always been one where customers come in and ask about your mama, and that’s what makes it worth it to me,” Gammill said. “People drive from all around for the tamales or the margaritas, but they come back because of the people.”

And over the years, people have come from near and far to have “the Fat Mama’s experience, but some have come further than others. Restaurant manager Brandon Echols said one customer traveled from New Jersey to eat at Fat Mamas. The customers found out about the restaurant when he received a quarter with a Fat Mama’s sticker on the back side.

“He came in and put the quarter down on the bar and said ‘I got this and decided I needed a vacation to Natchez,’” Echols said.

The quarter marketing started in the late 1990s, and since then Gammill said he has heard of people finding the quarters from as far away as the Bahamas. But he doesn’t care how or why people come through the door, as long as they keep coming

“Whether is it Natchez bringing people to Fat Mama’s or Fat Mama’s bringing people to Natchez it is a relationship that works well,” he said.