FARGO — Maria Rodriguez doesn't fancy herself as a professional chef. Anyone who has tasted her cooking might argue otherwise.
Rodriguez, originally from California, is the self-described cook behind Maria's Homestyle Mexican Food, a catering business she launched entirely by accident.
Rodriguez moved to Fargo 13 years ago and quickly found herself a crowd-favorite at potlucks with friends and co-workers. "I had started the business without knowing I started it by doing potlucks and bringing food," she said. "I was just bringing food in whenever we did our potlucks and everyone kept raving about it."
In a short time, Rodriguez began taking requests to cater large parties. Rodriguez was happy to oblige at no cost as long as her friends provided the ingredients.
With requests streaming in, Rodriguez realized it might be time to make her catering enterprise her full-time job. "Oh my goodness, this is really turning out well," she recalled thinking at the time. "Maybe I should think about turning this into an actual business."
"Before you know it, I'm doing birthday parties, weddings, graduation parties and pop-ups," Rodriguez continued. "We did the Red River Market and that blew us up. That was kind of the big, giant door opening for us."
Rodriguez's fiancé, aunt, niece and six children all help keep up with demand. She has a loaded schedule this summer, with appearances lined up at the Red River Market in addition to working local events such as Fargo Brewing Company’s Dia Del Taco. She also appeared at Moorhead Cruise Night.
When they're not working a private catering gig or a public event, the crew offers to-go meals out of the Square One Kitchen at 1407 1st Ave. N.
Rodriguez likes to keep the business family-centered. As she continues to successfully cater bigger and bigger events, she may have no choice but to hire out soon. "I try to keep it family-oriented for now, but because we're really growing," she said. "I'm probably going to have to hire outside of the family."
It's a family that like nearly all others in the United States was touched by the COVID-19 pandemic. As events were canceled one-by-one, the business took its lumps but was able to pivot to exclusively offering to-go orders.
That was until COVID-19 began claiming the lives of family members, requiring Rodriguez to put her business on the back-burner. "The pandemic hit our family extremely hard," she said. "We lost a few family members from it and I had to take a pause on the business."
Maria's Homestyle Mexican Food made its return in December, just in time for Rodriguez to offer her fan-favorite tamales, which she said are a traditional holiday dish.
Still, Rodriguez worried that her business would suffer a steep set-back after an extended absence. "From the cancelations to our pause, coming back I had a little fear," she said. "I felt like I had to reintroduce myself again. It almost felt like I had to start over again from the bottom."
The Fargo-Moorhead community rallied around her, though. "I love this community. They've embraced my business and they've been very supportive," Rodriguez said. "They showed me I wasn’t forgotten and they're still there supporting me."
With a loaded calendar through July and the backing of a loyal customer base, Rodriguez is bullish on the new year, adding it's been "pretty exciting" to watch reservations pile up. "Now all of a sudden I can't keep up, that's what it feels like," she said. "That’s been a beautiful blessing. I'm thankful."
To highlight the support she has received from the community, Rodriguez looks no further than the "countless" emails, text messages and voicemails complimenting her food, which she said "keep her going."
"I've been very honest with them (about) any trials and tribulations I've gone through such as inexperience, hiccups or just life," she remarked. "I've always had encouragement from them and they always make me feel like they want me."
Rodriguez has what she called "stepping stones" for her business, one of which she's hoping to accomplish this year: launching her own food trailer. "The biggest goal is to just get this trailer out there and really let people know that I’m here to stick around and stay," she said. "To accomplish this trailer is a lot."
Next on the list is a food truck and a catering kitchen to call her own.
Rodriguez takes "great pride" in her dishes. "I don't cut corners," she noted. "I feel like my food is a success because of the effort and time that I put into it because everything is mainly made from scratch and it's from the heart."
Professional chef may be a title she has rightfully earned, but Rodriguez is clear on how she views herself and her meals.
"I'm not a professional chef, I'm just a cook. I'm cooking the things I grew up eating, the things that I miss that I don't get to have out here as often and just remind me of home," she said. "I love sharing that."