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Cocina54 - The Story Behind the Empanadas

When did you start Cocina 54? 

We started Cocina 54 in 2017 with the hope of bringing gluten-free empanadas to the Austin area. At that point, we were mostly doing it out of a commercial kitchen and things began to take off when we got into a couple of local stores in Austin, including Wheatsville and Farmhouse Delivery.

What inspired you to start Cocina 54 in the first place? Why empanadas specifically?

Growing up in Argentina, empanadas were always part of any major event or dinner with friends. When my husband, Federico, and I moved from Argentina to the U.S., we couldn’t find good empanadas anywhere. We would make empanadas ourselves at home then save them in our freezer and bring them to the office. We’ve always been in the food industry and Federico has always been an entrepreneur, so we decided it was a good time to start a company together while raising a family. Empanadas seemed like the right fit and we liked that they are portable in addition to having great flavor. We wanted to make a better-for-you product with fresh ingredients and we wanted our empanadas to be gluten-free. It took 6 months to develop a gluten-free crust that consumers couldn’t tell was gluten-free, but it’s really given us a competitive edge in the market.

Why did you decide to call it Cocina 54?

54 is the country area code to call Argentina, and we thought that Kitchen 54 sounded really cool. After talking to American consumers, the feedback we got was that Cocina 54 sounded more fun. We are Spanish speakers, so it just made sense. From the very beginning, we knew that was the name.

Where did you grow up in Argentina? What was your childhood like?

Federico and I both grew up in Buenos Aires. My family lived in the countryside, and I spent summers going to the farm riding the tractor with my grandpa. I come from a huge family where everyone loves to cook. My grandmother would wake up and decide what to cook that day and we’d go to the fruit and vegetable market. I grew up eating super fresh food from the farm as a result and had the most amazing experiences with food with everything made from scratch.

What’s the story behind the art on the packaging?

There’s this type of art from Buenos Aires called Filete Porteno, which translates into “people from the port.” It’s described as a brush dancing the tango because of the way they position the brush and do the technique. It originated in Buenos Aires – it started with milk trucks that have these painted swirls. Growing up, we have mass transportation just like in New York - tons of buses and trains - the buses have all these swirls all over them. If you go to restaurants – there are lots of windows that are painted this way. It’s a very interesting type of art. It’s an amazing technique. It’s very hard to do. We thought it was very unique and we wanted to share our culture through the food we love and visually through the art of Argentina. With Cocina 54, you get the full experience. You can taste it and smell it and see it. The packaging will make you feel like you’re there in Buenos Aires.

What have been some key milestones between when you started Cocina 54 and where you are today?

#1. Our first big milestone was when we started getting some traction from retailers at the beginning of 2017. Before then we had been working for a year making empanadas in a commercial kitchen and delivering them ourselves. It was a big step when retailers began to call us!

#2. Entering into SKU, which is a regional Austin incubator - the mentors they have there are great. We got really great mentors with experience in the CPG area, which allows you to accelerate and grow faster.  

#3: Being named as finalists in the Quest for Texas Best contest - HEB brought us into 200 stores in 2018. This made HEB our first big retailer. From there, we had to figure out how to scale this, from a small commercial kitchen to fulfilling orders for 200 HEB stores. Luckily, we found a great partner to do that which allows us to still make things from scratch with fresh vegetables and antibiotic-free meats.

#4: Being selected for the Chobani national incubator. They had hundreds of applications and we were one out of eight companies accepted into their incubator.

What's the biggest difference between making empanadas at home vs. making thousands of empanadas for retail?

The pots and skillets are much larger! 

Empanadas are trending right now. Why do you think that is?

We’ve definitely seen a lot of new ways that America’s palate is opening up to flavors from around the world. Empanadas are one of the most common delicacies from Latin America. More people are trying empanadas as they travel, especially to South America. Empanadas are not only delicious, they’re really good for you, and are packed with vegetables and protein. Not to mention, they’re easy to eat on the go, and since everyone is always on the go these days, we’re all looking for convenience!

What makes empanadas better than, say, burritos?

I think burritos have a little less craft. In burritos, you cook all the ingredients separately. With empanadas, you bring all the fresh ingredients and cook them together - so there’s a richer, bolder flavor there.

What makes Cocina 54 empanadas different from/better than other empanadas on the market?

#1: The fact that we’re made from scratch is key. Other empanadas have lots of frozen ingredients so the flavor isn’t the same. Most frozen companies will buy grilled or pre-cooked chicken from somewhere else, which means they need to add sauces and flavorings because they have been processed so much. Our products are minimally processed and made from scratch; we cook all the vegetables and ingredients together, which gives amazing flavor. We also use a lot of vegetables - even the beef one has a lot of vegetables.

#2: The quality of our ingredients. Our products contain antibiotic-free meats and fresh veggies.

#3 Cocina 54 Empanadas are gluten-free. This is key for people who are celiac, but it’s also healthy for people who not necessarily gluten-free.

#4: We’re baked, not fried. Lots of empanadas are fried. Our empanadas are super convenient if you want to microwave them to heat them up.

#5: Authenticity: Our products are made by people who have had and have made empanadas all their lives. We’re really picky when developing these flavors and of course, we know that they have to appeal to a broader market. We are in Texas and people love jalapeños, so we’re super excited about our spicy beef option, bringing jalapeños into them.

#5: Our empanadas are very colorful, naturally. For example, our spicy beef includes crushed red pepper flakes. Things like that add flavor and color.

From your current lineup, what's your favorite empanada flavor and why?

My favorite is the Spinach & Cheese because it contains has so much fresh spinach. When we make them, we don’t cook the spinach, so you can taste that it’s super fresh. Federico’s favorite is the Chicken & Peppers. We use hand-cut chicken, which makes it a very high-quality product. The empanadas are flavorful on their own, but we also love to add an avocado ranch kind of sauce. All sorts of salsas also taste great with them - we had friends over on Saturday and we had a big salsa bar.

What's the biggest challenge in running a startup?

Getting the word out there is a challenge. You have this incredible product and you get into a supermarket, but then you still need to make sure people know about your product. We want people to know what the product looks like, how it tastes, and where to find it so more people are trying them!