Melissa Stefanini was raised in Miami, Florida surrounded by food from her culture. She and her boyfriend Sebastian Galvez moved from South Florida to Los Angeles and eventually Boston, MA. Inspired by the lack of access to food and flavors from their families’ native Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay, they started a business called Empaná in 2010. Empaná’s focus is handcrafted empanadas—folded dough stuffed with meat, cheese, vegetables, etc. The couple has hosted pop-up dinners, and sold empanadas at work and in local restaurants.
From Empaná, comes Buenas. Their new venture has a broader focus than Empaná. Through Buenas, Melissa and Sebastian plan on selling frozen food, sauces, dough, and other ingredients in grocery stores; the goal for this arm of the business is to provide people with the ingredients necessary to cook healthy, good South American food.
I went to high school with Melissa. It was great to catch up with her, and learn about the amazing businesses that she and Sebastian have created.
What inspired you to start your business?
I don’t really cook. I stopped trying to learn how to cook when I met my boyfriend seven years ago. He is really good with food (talk about jackpot). The food was not what inspired me. That’s actually what inspired him. One day, while we were still living in LA, we made a batch of empanadas. I took some to work because we had a bunch of extras, and people at my office loved them. We made them a few more times for people at my office. We eventually started putting up order sheets because we realized people loved what he was making.
Living in LA also inspired us to start the business. We couldn’t really find good empanadas. Food options are pretty diverse over there, but you’ll mainly see really good options for Mexican food and Asian food, but not so much empanadas. Anyway, we weren’t really seeing the food we grew up eating, and we wanted to eat the food we missed. We were inspired by a mixture of seeing how my coworkers reacted to the empanadas, and wanting to expose people to other food that they hadn’t necessarily tried.
Bass (Sebastian) used to own a skate shop in Miami that was equal parts a community hangout. The real origin story is that one time his grandma made empanadas and sold them to kids skating at the shop. They sold out instantly. Since then, he’s had the idea of selling them, but we didn’t revisit the idea until we were living in LA.
Now we’re in Boston, and again there really aren’t options for what we make. Moving here has made me see how much my family has influenced me, and it has made me appreciate my culture so much more. We’re not so much on a preachy mission to educate anyone, but a lot of what we do now is making food that people haven’t experienced, and teaching people that it’s an empanada, not an empañada.
How has your background influenced your business?
I’m originally from Miami. I studied advertising in college, and went to portfolio school after. After portfolio school, I moved to Los Angeles for work. I’ve been a copywriter for six years. I guess for half of that I’ve been working on my business too. The work has really helped me make the brand make sense to people. Without the advertisement I could’ve never made the business what it is. I guess I put my degree to use.
Eventually, I got a job opportunity in Boston and moved back to the East Coast. It’s funny because how we ended up in Boston ties directly into our business. We were living in LA, and we had just started the empanada business. After interviewing with a company in Boston, I decided I didn’t want to leave California.
So, I turned down the offer, but the company asked what it would take for me to make the move. And it was a nutso idea, but I told them that I make food, and that I wanted to sell my food to the agency. I honestly thought they were going to say no to my request, but they ended up saying yes, so I was like, “Hey, Bass, we’re moving to Boston.”
That company, though I don’t work there anymore, might not truly ever know how much they set in motion for us. I always maintain that doing this involves a lot of guts to stick with it, but equal amounts of luck. A lot of what has happened to us these past three years in Boston is pure fate.
Are sauces and frozen food the direction you’re going in? What do you think is next for the business?
We’ve been testing out what we want to do and what makes sense for our business. After doing some research (not to mention sticking with our plan to be self-funded for as long as possible), we quickly found out that we don’t necessarily want our own a restaurant like we initially thought.
With our new venture, Buenas, we want to focus on the wholesale of specialty goods inspired by our families. After roughly 4 years of catering and doing small events, we found out that people love everything that makes up the empanadas—sauces, dough—just as much as they love eating the finished product.
Our aim was always to make good food attainable, and to encourage people to cook at home more. When you look at restaurants where things are all organic and locally made, it can start to get prohibitively expensive. So, we shifted our focus to wholesale because we think it’s a way to give people the tools to make better food at home, for less money. Also, selfishly, it’s a way to present a lot more people with our product versus to try to start one location and reach a limited audience. Buenas is for people like us who grew up here, but also identify with another culture. It’s for anyone who grew up with one foot in a different culture. But we also see it as being as much for people like us as it is for those who have no idea what South America is about.
What role do you and your boyfriend each play in the business?
We definitely have a shared vision of the brand. He came up with the name. With the name Buenas, which means good in English, we were having fun with Spanglish and being total naming wizards.
His family is from Chile and Uruguay, and mine is from Argentina. When our powers combined, we came up with this awesome idea. But, the food tastes the way it does because of him and I became kitchen hands.
I’m definitely the person who embodies who our brand would appeal to—born here, look totally “American” but totally grew up feeling out of place because, well, my family does things differently. That really goes for both of us.
I’m definitely the person who embodies who our brand would appeal to. It’s funny because my family is South American, and, because of that, I grew up eating really fruitful, fresh food. We both grew up eating at home with our families all the time. Moving up to Boston, and getting older and busier, balancing everything becomes a challenge. This is part of the reason why you see companies like Blue Apron emerging.
We both grew up eating at home with our families all the time. And as we’ve gotten older we realize the game you have to play to balance living life and treating yourself well.
So we started the business because we want people to cook better and live easier, but we don’t want them to have to deal with getting these complicated and expensive meal deliveries. Our whole thing is we are definitely going to make our products with locally sourced ingredients, but that’s not the cornerstone of it. We don’t need to be screaming from the rooftops or all over our packages that our products are organic and locally sourced, because to us, that’s how it should be anyway. We trust that once you try it, you’ll see it tastes that much better because we do things better. Food doesn’t have to be so complicated.
Do you feel like there’s a difference between how Empaná and Buenas are received in LA and Boston?
In general, it’s been well received everywhere we’ve been. What that tells us is that it actually is that good. The response we’ve always gotten is how freaking awesome the food tastes. In LA, people were a little more familiar with empanadas than in Boston.
What is the origin of the hand-drawn visual style for the brand?
I’ll take credit for that one. I wanted to speak to how simple our food is by keeping the design simple, and showing the handmade element by using hand-drawn graphics. My friend, Steve Saiz created our logo and he created a pattern that we use on our Facebook page.
How do you feel like social media has influenced the growth of the business?
Social media is the only reason why we have a business. We have gone $0 into debt. A lot of stress! But no debt. Without social media platforms we wouldn’t be anywhere. We haven’t paid for an ad yet, but I could see how much good it would do judging by how much success we’ve had so far.
Where do you see the brand in 5-10 years?
Right now, we’re moving forward with wholesale, and working to make our brand take up some serious space on grocery store shelves. But our plan is to eventually have a retail space (a bodega) where people can come pick up whatever they need and maybe stay to learn how to make tapas for their empanadas, or even see some art.
I hope to see their products alongside Goya and Saffron Road at some point in the near future. To learn more about Empaná and Buenas visit heyempana.com and buenas.co.