Meet the head of Albuquerque’s Street Food Institute

It was everyone’s worst nightmare.

Tina Garcia-Shams and her catering crew were headed to Santa Fe in two large food trucks to feed 200 wedding guests when one of the vehicles blew a tire north of Bernalillo.

They figured the fastest thing to do was to transfer everything to the other truck and into Garcia-Shams’ personal vehicle and continue on their way as quickly as possible.

But 10 miles later, they came to a screeching halt again. This time, it was due to an accident that caused “a big line of traffic.”

“That’s when a little bit of panic set in,” says Garcia-Shams, executive director of the Street Food Institute.

Her tale had a happy ending, though: while Garcia-Shams and the chefs did arrive later than planned, they were coordinating with the wedding planner the whole way and managed to pull it off.

And that captures what Garcia-Shams is all about: staying flexible enough to juggle the myriad roles her nonprofit plays in training students and entrepreneurs who want to operate a food truck or other food service business.

“… Street food rocks and rolls … whether it’s served from a two-wheel cart, a pop-up booth or a full-blown kitchen on wheels,” says Garcia-Shams’ website.

The 8-year-old Street Food Institute, housed in a commissary kitchen at Central New Mexico Community College, trains not only CNM students but anyone who is interested in opening a mobile food business.

Participants run the CNM cafeteria and truck food to established customers like Intel, where they deliver lunch five days a week. Also using the kitchen are six established businesses, including a private chef.

Big changes are due in a couple of years, when Street Food expands into a new building at Fourth and Bell, to be built by the home ownership organization, Homewise. Also, under a grant it will receive, Street Food will begin an online curriculum and develop partnerships in San Juan and Grants counties.

“What’s been so great about this organization has been the flexibility to follow an organic path,” Garcia-Shams says. “There was no, ‘We’re doing this, and that’s all we’re going to do.’ We were really open to opportunities that were coming our way and trying them.”

Has there been a student or entrepreneur you’re particularly proud of?

“There have been so many. We had a student (with) a food truck called Fiesta Mexican food truck. Her name is Lilia Avila. She and her partner, Silvia Ochoa, were losing money, so they took our class, and we were really able to help them. What was happening was they really didn’t understand costing. It’s so important to think about what is this costing you — not just the ingredients, but your time. And how do you put that into your cost that you’re charging people? They decided to take a class at Three Sisters Kitchen, which is also a great partner of ours. They (Avila and Ochoa) sell salsa, and they have developed a very unique product — a salsa, mole, guacamole, red chile, green chile — all powdered, and you just add water. What we tell our students is one revenue stream is not going to make you financially successful, necessarily, so what can you do that is more than what you’re doing? There’s a very slim profit margin in this business. I think for me, they stand out (because) they were both immigrant women. They had resilience like you can’t imagine and perseverance, and they were also, really, really open to other ideas. They have really been able to see their ideas and products grow.”

What are your favorite foods?

“My husband is from Iran. He’s a great cook. He makes some really wonderful Persian food. A couple of the dishes that are my favorites are the kabobs and the rice. Also a dish called fesenjan. It’s a stew with chicken, pomegranate and walnuts that you put over rice.”

What are you pet peeves?

“People being late.”

What makes you sad?

“There’s been a lot of loss in my family. I don’t have parents or a sibling any longer. That’s very sad for me. But I think just in normal life what makes me sad are people — and even myself, I’m certainly not always my best — but people who don’t show kindness to other people.”

Do most of your aspiring entrepreneurs go on to operate their own food truck?

“I feel like this program is equally important for people to know whether this is the right path before they put in all of their resources — financial and time. Someone who just likes to cook isn’t necessarily going to want to start a business. It’s hard, hard work, so you have to really love it. Our mission is to help individuals start small businesses, but what really happens is that because of our internships, a lot of people, especially CNM students, didn’t have any real experience working in a kitchen setting. Many wanted that experience. Maybe they went off to work in a restaurant. To be honest with you, it is very much an entrepreneurship training program, but it’s also become a workforce training program.”

You had no experience in the food industry when you left Amy Biehl High School for Street Food Institute. Why did you make the leap?

“A friend of mine and a previous board member of Amy Biehl had contacted me and said, ‘Hey, I’m consulting on this project. They’re looking for a coordinator. Are you interested?’ I guess in the beginning, it’s because it was new. That idea of ​​a startup was really appealing to me. I really liked wearing a lot of hats, doing a little bit of everything. As it grew, I think what really kept me in it was just being a part of somebody’s dream and journey — I mean our entrepreneurs who were coming to our classes and wanting to start their own businesses. And watching that progress and being a part of that progress, and then seeing them fly. That’s the piece that I love.”

THE BASICS: Tina Michele Garcia-Shams, 57, born in Albuquerque; married to Saeed Shams since 1992; one child, Ariana Isabel Shams, 26; one dog, Boots, “a mix of a lot of things”; alternative licensure program for secondary education, College of Santa Fe, 2005; bachelor’s, university studies, University of New Mexico, 1994.

POSITIONS: Executive director, Street Food Institute, since 2017; community relations director, Street Food Institute/Simon Charitable Foundation, 2013-2017; community engagement director, teacher, adviser, human resources director, Amy Biehl High School, 2001-2013.

OTHER: Board member, Amy Biehl Foundation and Robert F. Kennedy Charter School; Street Food Institute worked with World Central Kitchen during COVID to deliver weekly meals to the Madrid and Edgewood areas; organizer, Salud y Sabor, free monthly event; participated in pilot program bringing fresh produce to designated “food deserts” in the South Valley and International District.

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