Chicago – Times of crisis give rise to the best ideas, like 5411 Empanadas, a product developed by three Argentine buddies that is getting off to a good start on the streets of downtown Chicago.
Faced with the prospect of losing his job in a bank during the 2008 economic crisis, Nicolas Ibarzabal considered turning his passion for Argentine empanadas into a business niche that could very well be exploited in a city that loves street food.
The empanada is no novelty in Latin America.
"But it was never very well known to the general, non-Latino market, and with them in mind we worked on developing the brand," Ibarzabal told Efe in an interview.
Counting on his marketing savvy, he teamed up with two other Buenos Aires natives living in Chicago who contributed capital and their experience in management and promotion.
Why 5411 Empanadas? Because the number combines the calling code for Argentina, 54, with the city code for Buenos Aires, 11.
As for the product itself, each of the partners named his own preferences to arrive at a menu of baked empanadas with a selection of stuffings for customers to choose from: ground beef, ham and cheese, roasted chicken, cheese and spinach, or corn with caramelized onion.
The customers, who form long lines in the financial sector to buy their empanadas off the 5411 Empanadas food truck, have shown marked preference for the caramelized onion stuffing and for the one made of ground beef mixed with onions, olives, hard-boiled eggs and seasoning.
The company began with Ibarzabal and a couple of partners sharing a kitchen with two other mobile chefs who made tamales and cupcakes. But with the growing demand for the Argentine specialty, the company has grown to seven employees who produce and distribute the 20,000 empanadas sold every month on the streets and at fairs, festivals, private events and on order for home delivery.
Every day the sky-blue 5411 Empanadas food truck parks at one strategic spot or another around the city, very careful to avoid getting fined by municipal inspectors always on the lookout for "kitchens on wheels."
The ordinances in force ban food trucks from serving customers within 30 meters (33 yards) of the nearest established restaurant, or from parking less than 60 meters (66 yards) from a business that offers "similar services."
To be able to operate without breaking the law, someone goes to the chosen parking place the night before and parks there to reserve the spot until the next day when the truck arrives with its supply of pre-prepared empanadas ready to heat and serve.
Ibarzabal and his partners already have expansion in mind and plan to open a restaurant in the Lincoln Park area with steel tables and a big show-window displaying their products.
"We've had a lot of luck since we began, and we hope that our winning streak keeps going so we can make this little company into big business," Ibarzabal said.