National Hispanic Heritage Month 2021
By Delaney Vetter
“This business is a way to show our girls how proud they can be of their culture, where they are now and all the good things despite all the bad things happening in the world.”
Empanada's were a big part of the couple's life in Argentina. Cecilia said you couldn't go a block without seeing a vendor and every city and country in Latin America had different flavors based on what ingredients were available.
"It was a staple, just like pizza.”
They struggled to find empanadas that could hold up to the ones they'd get back home. Whether her mom or grandma had prepared them or they were from a truck that stopped by Nestle's offices at lunch time.
They finally decided to take matters into their own hands…
On weekends they would make a batch and store them in the freezer for busy weeknight dinners. When Cecilia started bringing them to work she would always get questions and compliments on them and soon co-workers started saying “where's mine.”
The real testament that they were on to something came from a toddler's birthday party..
Where else do business epiphanies happen right?!
As the CPG pro that she was, Cecilia got to work researching if this could be a feasible business. Not only did she see the Latin American population in the US rising but also since we live in such a global world, the appetite for global flavors was stronger than ever.
In addition, she found that better-for-you options and convenient foods to fit busy lifestyles were dominating. In 2017 her and her husband knew that it was their time.
They started preparing them out of a commercial kitchen using fresh veggies and antibiotic- free meat.
Just like that Cocina 54 was born!
Before they knew it they moved from a commercial kitchen to a co-packer (which was tricky to find when you want everything completely from scratch) and were in hundreds of stores in Texas and expanding rapidly.
But the goal here wasn't only to sell empanadas, the family want to share a bit of their heritage too…
Transporting consumers to the streets of Buenos Aires with their food was important to them. They realized they could bring the flavors they grew up with AND Argentinean culture to a mainstream US market.
“That’s what we’re trying to build, a brand that brings a little bit of flavor and a little bit of culture.”
While every family, country and restaurant put their own spin on the dish, Cecilia said the dedication to fresh real food has always been part of her life. She referred to her grandma as “old school” who would wake up at 7 with a list of ingredients she needed grandpa to pick up so she could prepare their lunch for the day. The emphasis was freshness always.
Which is why you won't find any pre-cooked meat products or dehydrated veggies in these little pies, all fresh ingredients. Including gluten-free crust which is not typical of the dishes they grew up with but they decided on to make the empanadas accessible (and edible) to a wider range of people.
While they are mom and grandma approved, the Cecilia and her family tell their immigrant story with these little hand pies too…
While adding jalapeños may seem small, it's a nod to the city that's become a home for them and that's fostered an incredible community to rally around their new venture.
Cecilia said Austin’s food culture has been inspiring and helped them find community. With so many iconic and emerging CPG brands with Austin roots, there is no shortage of people to lean on and learn from.
Like most entrepreneurs, it's not always smooth sailing running the show. She said being an entrepreneur is 1 part great things and 3 parts pits in your stomach and putting out fires.
Anyone who is their own boss can likely relate to that sentiment.
But Cecilia said being an entrepreneur, an example for her girls and her community is what drives her everyday. Seeing her girls share the empanadas with friends, be involved in photos and videos and helping out in the kitchen has been so special to her.
“Being able to create something that shares a little bit of who we are and how lucky we are to be here and to raise our daughters here is amazing. The opportunities they are going to have that we didn’t have-that is something that I love and makes it worth it.”