Interview #10: Melissa Stefanini's Empanadas
Plus: THE PERIODIC TABLE OF BUENAS EMPANADAS!!!
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I first tried a Buenas empanada in 2018, shortly after the South American-inspired food brand set up shop in Bow Market in Somerville, MA. That first empanada was the cheesy, spinach-filled “Uruguayan,” inspired by the large-format pie Torta Pascualina. It was extremely good. Thanks to a pandemic-era pivot, Buenas empanadas became available in frozen form via delivery and local retailers, and I spent much of 2020 heating up guava-cheese and supreme pizza empanadas in my oven and slowly savoring them on the couch. I celebrated New Year’s Eve with crab rangoon empanadas, also on the couch. Suffice it to say, I was very excited to chat with Buenas co-founder/co-owner/showrunner Melissa Stefanini.
Throughout Latin America, empanadas vary widely from region to region and with plenty of nuance, from the makeup of the dough to the fillings to the way they’re cooked. (Check out this Serious Eats explainer by Naomi Tomky for a sense of the vast landscape.)
The empanadas at Buenas pay homage to these regional variances, but are also multifaceted in their own unique, intensely personal way. During the pandemic, Melissa decided to push the notion of what an empanada could be further, more-regularly incorporating the comfort foods and pop culture references that represent her upbringing in Miami. This has resulted in oft-changing, always-interesting flavor combinations like "Cheesy Bean and Rice," topped with a fine layer of Doritos dust, duck confit and hoisin-filled “Darkwing Duck” (yes, like the TV show), and “Big Mac,” complete with a very cute sesame seed “bun.”
✨(Click the image to expand!)✨
At this point, Melissa and team have created upwards of 60 different flavors of empanadas for Buenas in recent years. Because she’s so good about documenting them on Instagram, I was able to collate them, and—with her enthusiastic participation—turn them into a not-at-all scientific PERIODIC TABLE OF BUENAS EMPANADAS (above). Have I been using a lidocaine rollerball on my neck this week due to Canva-induced strain? Yes! Was it absolutely worth it? You bet—this is our 10th Above the Fold interview, go big or go home!
Yesterday, Melissa launched a NuMarket campaign aimed at funding the next iteration of Buenas: the Buenas Aisle, a virtual "aisle" of products (empanadas included) that will ship nationally. In 2022, Boston-area residents will also be able to experience these products in-person at Super Bien, a grocery store-slash-bar that she's opening at The Speedway in Brighton. And guess what?! ✨Early campaign contributors will be sent a copy of the above infographic in poster form!!!!✨
Read more below, in Melissa’s words, about how Buenas came to be, why she left advertising to channel her life story into empanadas, and how many she can fold in an hour (it’s a lot).
From the Ad Biz to the Food Biz
Around 2012, my boyfriend Sebastian and I were living in LA; he worked in the food industry while I was working in advertising. We’re from Miami—my parents came here in ’72, and the rest of my family is in Argentina, and Sebastian's family is in Uruguay and Chile. For both of us, it started as getting a piece of home when we were far away. In Los Angeles, there's a lot of Mexican food, the best that you can find. But we just couldn't find stuff that we were used to eating at home, and we were like, "We're going to start making empanadas and just see how it goes.”
One day I brought them into work—people tried them and loved them. It turned into an order form, and it just became a thing. Then I had a job interview in Boston. They offered me the job, and I didn't want to take it. They were like, "Well, what do we have to do to get you to come here?" and I just made up a bunch of stuff like, "This salary, you need to give me relocation fees, give me temporary housing, and my boyfriend makes empanadas and he needs a job too, so we're going to sell this food in your office.” I figured no-one would say yes to this. But they did, and that’s how I ended up in Boston.
At first, we were making empanadas at pop-ups at breweries and doing some office catering. Then we got put in touch with the commissary kitchen CommonWealth Kitchen. We always knew we wanted to do a wholesale line of products. We actually started with our chimichurri and pebre sauces, because it was a lot easier to scale up that production.
As we were figuring out our wholesale license, we learned about this new project opening up in Union Square called Bow Market. That’s how our first retail shop came to be.
Not Your Nana’s ‘Nadas
Our dough is wheat-based, definitely more akin to what you would find pretty much everywhere in Argentina, and they’re baked. To take it up another step, we fold them all differently, and we started garnishing everything differently. I live in the world where you know 99% of people won't notice those details, but you know one percent will and that's who you're doing it for.
I guess what I really mean by saying, "This is not your nana's 'nadas," is it's not going to be exactly how she did it. But it's pretty close to the versions that I remember eating over in Argentina when I visit my family.
When we opened the shop, we wanted the menu to showcase all the products that we make, and we would do an extended menu of other food. But once we had to shut down during the pandemic, it just made much more sense to focus on the empanadas because that's what everyone knows us for. The pandemic actually helped me see that there's room for more flavors, more weird stuff.
I grew up in this weird limbo where I was very firmly in the middle of two very different cultures and never felt like I had the right to really claim parts of either one. The empanadas and running this business specifically has helped me see that not only am I very much allowed to claim that part of my heritage, it’s an opportunity to tell that story through a different lens, pulling those traditions and blending them with the fact that I grew up in the U.S. and we eat Big Macs.
I pulled a sneaker move recently and I'm doing “flavor drop Wednesdays,” using the "flavor drop" as a way to keep introducing new flavors without having that affect the entire week of service at the store. So it's still giving people a chance to try new things but without taxing the system too much.
Valuing Empanadas Like Fancy Donuts
Right now I'm at about almost 11,500 empanadas per month. Weekly, we're hitting like 2,200, 2,300 and right now that's happening with three people plus me. So it's a lot.
Tuesdays and Wednesdays are when fillings get made, and as part of those two prep days we actually scoop and freeze all the filling and then the dough gets precut on Wednesday. And then on Thursday we just pull dough and scoops and fill and fold. I’ve got it down to me personally doing 100 an hour by myself including filling them and folding them in half, which is pretty fast.
Once the shutdown happened I was like, “If people will pay seven dollars for a donut with some shit on top of it, then they should pay seven dollars for an empanada that takes this much fucking manual labor.” It’s that brain switch of bucking against what people have accepted as truth about value of these things. I always use donuts as an example, because Union Square Donuts is around the corner, and I’ve never heard someone be like, "Why is this donut five dollars?" They're just like, "Oh, it's a donut. That's what they cost and it has cool stuff on top and cool flavors."
And the more that I was running our kitchen and the Bow Market shop I was like, "I mean, that is what we're doing. It's just savory. We are a donut shop, but with empanadas.”
I hope that people get over this idea that empanadas should cost a dollar in a place like Boston or Brooklyn. This mentality that these types of food should cost less, that thing gets me a lot actually. I think about that a lot. And you're like, "Well, I just sacrificed my whole entire life to make this thing, but sure, have it for a dollar.”
A Life Story in an Empanada
For the first few years, I thought of myself as “helping” because I was good at advertising, even after doing the work of running the business and actually starting to make the food and do all the kitchen stuff. Little did I know, I was growing into the thing that I was supposed to do.
I always laugh because if I hadn’t left this advertising job, at this point, I would be making, I don't know, $200,000 to be a creative director—but it made me so unhappy and so insecure and so mad and so sad all the time. It's soul-sucking, and you're not really making art. Empanadas saved my life. I would have been so unhappy for so long if I didn't take on this project and put to use all the skills that I have.
With this job, with this life, I do I get to pull from so many aspects of things that I enjoy, like food styling and photography and making things with your hands or even what I feel like eating that day. Like, "I want a Big Mac really bad. How do we do this version the best as an empanada?"
Our next location is at The Speedway in Brighton, and then we’re working on cold shipping for people that still want these who are further away, like in Miami or California. And then concept-wise the next step is just delivering on that promise of making a bunch of products that let you do stuff at home that is easier and better. There are so many things you could do with this dough that we make. There are so many things you could do with the sauces, and it doesn't have to be stuff that's South American.
The focus in general is going to be just realistically demonstrating all the things you can make with these products that happen to be inspired by South America, but it doesn't have to be that. I think that that serves in a way—not to sound very cheesy—to bring people together more.
It is showing people flavors from South America, but it's leaving the door open to blend that with whatever you want, which is sort of what my entire life has been. And I think if you stay closer to your lived experience, it's just relatable to everyone else that much more. Even if what I'm selling is very specific, which is my life story, that is in the end way more relatable universally.
The above interview was condensed and edited. Interview subjects are paid an honorarium for taking the time to share their knowledge and experience.