UB Insider #19: Bringing Empanadas and a Helping Hand to Salt Lake City
About this episode:
Ana Valdemoros started Argentina’s Best Empanadas 10 years ago, fresh out of college with no formal culinary training. This summer, she opened a storefront in downtown Salt Lake City, and has plans to help other food entrepreneurs achieve their dreams of running successful businesses, as well, via the forthcoming Square Kitchen on Salt Lake’s West Side. In this episode of UB Insider, she talks to Utah Business‘ Lisa Christensen about how she made the leap from her degree and work in city planning to the food business, and how helping others get a foothold helps elevate the city’s economy as a whole. Subscribe to our podcast or download this episode on iTunes and Stitcher.
Lisa Christensen: Hello and welcome to UB Insider. I’m Lisa Christensen, online editor at Utah Business magazine. Utah is well known for its entrepreneurial spirit. And while we tend to think of it more in the tech space, the state is also home to a lot of restaurant startups. Food trucks, food stands, farmers markets and other outdoor events.
Ana Valdemoros started Argentina’s Best Empanadas 10 years ago, fresh out of college with no formal culinary training. This summer she opened a storefront in downtown Salt Lake City and has plans to help other food entrepreneurs achieve their dreams of running a successful business as well. Thanks for coming in Ana.
Ana Valdemoros: Thank you so much for having me.
Lisa Christensen: When you started Argentina’s Best you had no formal culinary training. Why did you decide to go into the food business and how did you break in?
Ana Valdemoros: So I think it started as a stroll in the park with my mom. Actually the fair, the downtown Salt Lake City Farmer’s Market. It was so small at the time and so looking, there were not that many options for food. And I’m like, well, wouldn’t empanadas be great here? I mean, it’s something that I miss.
By the time I had been in the United States for six years or so. And I thought, I’m just going to ask around how to get this started and I asked some people that I knew at the time and that’s how I started doing that. It started as a hobby right out of college. I am a city planner and urban stuff, the market was a passion of mine and I think that’s why I was at the market that day. And I thought that food would be a good venue to create and build community, right?
Lisa Christensen: So your degree is in city planning?
Ana Valdemoros: Yes. From the U.
Lisa Christensen: So that must, how did that help with your entrepreneurial endeavor?
Ana Valdemoros: Right. So I think I’m passionate about building community in any capacity that I can. For a few years I worked for the government, for non-profits, so there is legislation on the planning side, rules, grant funding and trying to get some projects accomplished. But you can also do urban planning by actually, you know, doing it yourself. Opening a business and trying to create walkability and use spaces that were vacant, especially downtown. And so I think it’s a mix of everything.
Lisa Christensen: What challenges were there starting out, especially since you didn’t come from, you know, kind of a restauranteur background?
Ana Valdemoros: I think at the time some of the regulations were less strict in terms of food and food preparation and where you could do it. Then when the Farmer’s Market became more popular, food trucks became more popular, more food stands, you know, the rules changed a little bit. I think that was when it became more challenging to find the right kitchen. To find employees. To find funds to actually apply for all of these events, all of these permits. That was challenging at the beginning.
I was lucky enough to have some people that mentored me to tell me, this is where you can buy the pans and, you know, the food cheaper and this is how you can make things easier for you in the preparation process and stuff like that. I used to do everything myself, so that helped me. I think the most challenging part was finding the funds for all the new permits and all of the regulations and market fees and all that stuff.
Lisa Christensen: Yeah, because when you started out, you started out with $1,000 right?
Ana Valdemoros: Right. From my mom, yeah.
Lisa Christensen: Yeah. And that was for pots and pans and such?
Ana Valdemoros: Exactly. Exactly. So that’s all I had. And I go, I was just going to try it. I didn’t have anything going on for the summer other than an internship. So that’s how I started with $1,000, yes.
Lisa Christensen: Wow. And it’s grown so much in the last 10 years.
Ana Valdemoros: Yeah. It’s been great. You know, through the years, now that I go back and think about it, some years were really slow for us at the market. I mean, the economy, 2008, 2009, we had that thing going on and then… And then because of work related issues I couldn’t really focus on the business as much as I would have wanted to. But once I took a business class at UMLF, Utah Microenterprise Loan Fund, then I really learned more about the business and how to approach it better. And that’s when I made a decision, it’s time for me to open something downtown.
A lot of clients would ask me at the market, so where can we find you during the week? Other than orders? Or, the other thing was, I’m right outside your kitchen. Do you have empanadas left? And we’re like, that’s where we prep. We’re not there all the time. You have to order in advance. So every week I would lose a few customers because we didn’t have a storefront. So now we do.
Lisa Christensen: Yeah. And you just opened your storefront in downtown. How has that changed the way that you do business now that you are, you are or have someone at a place all the time? How does that change how you approach business and how your business is running?
Ana Valdemoros: You know, it’s a different story than the farmer’s market, I’m starting to see. I think the clients that come to the store are more demanding, and that is a good thing for me or for the business because you get to see, you get to see new people that have no idea about what the business is. They might have an idea of empanadas from other countries, but it’s, I see it as an educational opportunity both for us, so that we can learn and we can improve the product and we can improve our storefront and the products that we offer. But also an educational opportunity for us to teach about where I come from, how are things done, why the things are the way that they are, or the flavors or the sizes, or why, you know, countryside in Argentina and memories from when I was a child back there. So it’s a win-win at the end of the day. The crowd for the storefront is more demanding than the farmer’s market people and than the catering people, definitely.
Lisa Christensen: Are you still doing the farmer’s market and the catering? Or how are you scaling those in terms of the storefront?
Ana Valdemoros: Right. So I do the farmer’s market this summer, but every other weekend. So I’m not there every week like we used to. We do catering and that’s going to happen throughout the year from now on. And then we’re doing two other events which is Twilight Concert Series, I partner up with Buzzed Coffee Truck. And then we do Craft Lake City. And this will be the third year at Craft Lake City.
Lisa Christensen: So when you were a student at the U, could you have anticipated where you are now?
Ana Valdemoros: No. Not really. I really liked more design and more mapping and urban design. But I, at the end of the day I did have that entrepreneurial spirit there telling me something. How could you improve things? When you’re a planner and you’re into urban living you walk around, you observe and you constantly think about, how could that building be better? I mean, either materials or heights or actual businesses that could go in there. So I think I knew a little bit, but not really. Not exactly that I would be doing what I’m doing today.
Lisa Christensen: So in addition to your storefront, you are also engaged in developing and, you know, trying to open Square Kitchen, a culinary incubator so other small food businesses can come in, rent space, prepare their food or give classes or demonstrations or whatever. Just have a venue that they can come rent.
Ana Valdemoros: Right.
Lisa Christensen: So why is opening that important to you, especially when you’ve got so many other things going on? And what do you hope to accomplish with it?
Ana Valdemoros: So the two projects kind of came along at the same time. Thinking about opening a storefront. And I think why I did it that way, or why I’m taking advantage of it so that it’s hands on and I know from my own experience what the challenges are for small businesses.
You have a food stand at the farmer’s market. What are those challenges? Where do you prep your food? Who helps you? What are the fees? What are things that you need to absolutely have to make it happen? And my business partner for Square Kitchen, he also has a food business, a small food business. And we kind of got together and started talking about all of the challenges that we were having in our own commissary kitchens and we wrote it down. And we’re like, we can do this. We can actually facilitate a much better product to people like us. We know what we like. We know what we don’t like. We know what we need. We know the rates that we can pay. We know the needs, graphic design needs. We know the, what do you call it, attorneys and legal help that we need. And so we put our thinking hats on and we’re like, we can start developing a business plan and see if we can join forces again. Maybe ask our parents for some extra funding, you know, to put it together.
So we had a business plan. We had thought about it and then the Salt Lake City sustainability department, they came up with an RFP for a culinary incubator kitchen. And everything kind of aligned. Because what we were trying to offer was exactly what they wanted. And so we went through the first round, second round, and we got it.
So what we are trying to accomplish is to make life easier for other food vendors. Either if you’re a startup, or if you’re in the middle, we want to help out. Just like we were helped in the past, we’re trying to pay it forward. There’s a very well-known entrepreneur out there, food entrepreneur out there that has this too, his name is Jorge Fierro. And he says pay it forward and he’s a perfect example of that. He helps as much as he can, food businesses. He’s helped me. And so we’re trying to do the same thing for the new ones because we know what the challenges are.
People get discouraged because of all this permitting and all of these regulations. And when you use kitchens as well, with scheduling and who cleans and what time and how long do you have it? Where are your things? So with Square Kitchen we’re trying to eliminate all of that hassle and make it simple for the small business to the medium business, for them to have space. That it’s clean. That it’s easy to access. They can use it 24 hours a day. They can pay monthly or they can pay hourly depending on their needs, so Square Kitchen will do that. So it will have space for pop up dinners, for classrooms, they will have space for graphic designers. For freelancers that want to work with food businesses. And then in the future, it will have storefront space as well for people to have an outlet to sell their stuff.
Lisa Christensen: Wow. So that is, that’s fantastic. That sounds like such a beautiful coincidence that it came together right as Salt Lake City was looking for the very same thing.
Ana Valdemoros: Right. Yeah, I mean, I remember when they started doing surveys back in the day. I was one of them. They came to my kitchen and they asked me, what are the challenges? So they put a great study together about the needs. And there is a high need for commissary, commissary kitchens out there because the health department is really into it. And I think it’s the right thing to do and I’m glad we can provide that.
Lisa Christensen: So with the city, you know, actively looking for something and now helping you with the process and they also gave you a $350,000 grant to help you get it off the ground, it obviously gives value to the city as well. What value do you think it gives to the city as a whole to have an incubator like this?
Ana Valdemoros: I think it just puts Salt Lake City at a different level compared to other cities that you would actually have something like that. You don’t know where businesses can go, and you need space to give the opportunity to people that would like to start a business. Or they’re in the middle of a business and they want to expand, right? So I think it has so much added value. It’s pretty much an economic development forum. I mean, jobs will be created, business will be created, taxes will get paid, and so I think it puts Salt Lake City on another level.
I don’t think many cities have done that in the past. And too, they did that study about the need and they know exactly what the businesses need. So in terms of economic development, it’s a great opportunity that the city council and the sustainability department have put together for, for businesses. Another factor with the sustainability department is we’re trying to use local. One of the policies of our kitchen will have to utilize local foods. Locally produced. So Utah produced produce. And so that’s part of like, you know, the sustainability model that we want to build with the city.
Lisa Christensen: Well thank you so much Ana for coming in.
Ana Valdemoros: Thank you so much for having me. Thank you for the article.
Lisa Christensen: Yes, absolutely.
Ana Valdemoros: And I’m looking forward to any other questions that you have in the future for Square Kitchen.
Lisa Christensen: Well great, we’ll have to talk to you when that gets closer to being opened.
Ana Valdemoros: Thank you.
Lisa Christensen: You can read more about Ana and other food entrepreneurs in the state in our July issue. We’d also like to thank Mike Sasich for production help as well as Chris Sasich and Adva Biton. Subscribe to our podcast on iTunes and Stitcher and follow us online on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Thanks for listening.