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How the AZ Diamondbacks’ famous tamale vendor is adjusting to COVID-19

Priscilla Totiyapungprasert
Arizona Republic

Published 12:28 PM EDT Aug 7, 2020

Reynaldo “Rey” Cota misses the fans at Chase Field.

Baseball games have returned, but it’s not the same without the noisy crowds, the lively buzz in the air, and the longtime customers who greet him at his tamale stand, ReyGloria’s.

During the week, Cota works as a security guard at the downtown Phoenix ballpark. On the weekends, he would normally be slinging his famous tamales from Section 137 on the main concourse.

When the coronavirus pandemic led Major League Baseball to delay the start of the regular season, Cota hoped it wouldn’t be long before he was back to feeding fans and hearing the locals cheer as the Arizona Diamondbacks score a run.

But the public health crisis persists and Cota is still waiting for the day when he can safely reopen ReyGloria’s. Chase Field remains closed to visitors and operates under strict, COVID-19 safety measures, including temperature checks for employees, Cota said. 

“Baseball is an outlet for a lot of people,” Cota said. “People want to relax after work and enjoy three hours of a game. We just can’t do that no more. We’re doing it, but in an eerie and different way. It’s pretty somber to not enjoy all the excitement and build-up of a game.” 

‘I started realizing my family had something’

Cota credits his mother Gloria for the tamale recipes — hence the name of the business, ReyGloria’s.

His mother makes tamales every year, especially around Christmastime, and his family became known for them in his hometown Guadalupe, just outside Phoenix, Cota said.

His family catered at weddings, and delivered tamales to friends, neighbors and people from church. His father Reynaldo Sr., who worked as a truck driver, brought Gloria’s tamales with him to share with other truck drivers too, Cota remembered.

While his parents considered opening their own restaurant, they didn’t have the capital and would have had to put their house up for collateral. They were scared that if the restaurant went under, they would lose their home, Cota said.

“They started selling out of the back of the trunk, as we say,” Cota said. “That’s how it started and I started realizing my family had something there. They just needed a little push, or to give me the ball so I could run with it.”

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How ReyGloria’s ended up at Chase Field

Cota became a baseball fan in 1998, the year the Arizona Diamondbacks came to Phoenix. He watched them win the World Series title in 2001, the same year he took on a job as a parking attendant at Chase Field.

He later became a security guard and has worked at Chase Field ever since, minus the period he was furloughed this past spring during the coronavirus pandemic. 

Prior to working at Chase Field, Cota had been a cabinet marker for about 15 years. When the cabinet business shuttered, he had a period of unemployment and used that time to help his mother with her tamale side business. Cota was in his early 30s then and they often got in disagreements in the kitchen, he recalled.

“We bumped heads a lot of times but it was only so I could learn it the right way,” Cota said. “If you don’t do it the right way, you won’t have the same consistency. I always wanted to do shortcuts, but she said no shortcuts.”

Years later, the invitation to become a Chase Field vendor sprung from a meeting between his friend, former APS executive Victor Flores, and Diamondbacks CEO Derrick Hall. Flores brought tamales and got Hall hooked.

“They were unbelievable, so I asked Victor who made them,” Hall told The Arizona Republic in 2014. “He said, ‘They came from Rey Cota, your security guard. If I would’ve told you that beforehand, you wouldn’t have eaten them.’ “

Cota was suprised when Hall later asked him if he wanted to sell his tamales at the ballpark. The Diamondbacks paid for his equipment, his business license and his insurance, investing over $20,000 into Cota’s fledgling business, The Republic reported.

In June 2008, he opened ReyGloria’s serving two kinds of tamales, red chile beef and green chile corn. By June 2011, Phoenix New Times named ReyGloria’s the Best Ballpark Food. He’s come a long way since he and his wife Martha had to walk around the concourse with free samples to entice customers.

“My parents have a lot of faith and I learned that from them too,” Cota said. “The Lord has plans for everybody. Everything does fall into place.”

How the tamales became a ballpark staple

Over the years, the menu at ReyGloria’s has expanded to include green chile chicken tamales, as well as a combination plate with rice and beans. Cota makes the tamales a little bigger than the standard size so that they’re ballpark food proportions, he said.

Cota also takes off-menu orders for delivery, such as shrimp tamales, zucchini tamales and sweet tamales with raisins.

He and Martha, who operates the food stand with their son Luis on weekdays, enjoy teaching first-timers what a tamale is and how to eat one, but they don’t serve tamales with husks on anymore, unless they’re for delivery. They’ve seen too many people who tried to eat tamales with the husk on, Cota admitted.

Cota feels proud, however, that he gets to share something from his culture that’s not what people usually think of when they think of ballpark food.

“It gave me satisfaction and peace knowing that I learned something my parents learned, and I get to expand to get it out there,” he said. “It gave me satisfaction I’m selling a Mexican tradition.”

What’s next for ReyGloria’s?

Nowadays, Cota misses the roar of fans, so loud sometimes he can barely hear a person’s order. He’s watched kids eating his tamales grow into teenagers and loyal customers.

Some of his customers are contacting him to buy tamales, but because his commercial kitchen is located in a closed part of the ballpark, he can’t fulfill their orders. Safety restrictions at Chase Field are tight — just a few days into the start of the Major League Baseball season, the Miami Marlins had a COVID-19 outbreak.

“I understand with this pandemic and what’s happening with the the league, my business has taken a big punch. It’s just sad that I’m in there right now and I can’t sell anything,” Cota said.

Cota hopes to find an outside location to open a tamale factory, that way he can expand his business outside the ballpark. In the meantime, he feels grateful he still has his job as a security guard to provide an income.

“It’s really eerie when you can’t get that feeling of people coming in, the smell of food rising up through the ballpark, the noise, the music, the excitement from the crowd,” Cota said.

“All these sports, the way the pandemic is affecting them. We’re all being affected.”

Reach the reporter at Priscilla.Totiya@azcentral.com. Follow @priscillatotiya on Twitter and Instagram.

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