Kendall Bajek, 28, started making empanadas in her apartment kitchen, but demand encouraged her to open a takeout restaurant 5 years ago. Now she’s on her way to an empanada empire.
When did you learn to make empanadas? I lived in Buenos Aires teaching English after college. When I was teaching people in their homes, they often made empanadas for dinner, and that’s really how I learned. In Argentina, empanadas are what they eat on the go. It’s like how somebody would come here and have pizza. I picked it up that way, but I still wasn’t thinking of it as the beginning of a dream to own an empanada shop or anything like that. I was just learning how to make a delicious empanada.
How did you end up making empanadas when you came home? I worked as manager for Jules Thin Crust pizza, but eventually I wanted to get out of managing people and started applying for writing jobs in New York City, trying to get where my friends were. It was really difficult because I had zero experience. So, in my down time, I started making empanadas out of my apartment for friends and family, without really intending to sell them. But then other people in town were asking for them. I started a Facebook page so people could message me if they wanted empanadas. And then they were showing up at my house. One day, my mom was driving these lunches all over town, and she said, “This is kind of insane, and you can’t be doing this in your house anymore.”
So you decided to open a store? I needed to operate out of a commercial kitchen, so I found a little spot in Doylestown. My dad and I converted it into what it is now, doing the construction and getting used equipment. Then we opened, 6 months after I started making empanadas in my apartment. Now, 6 years later, we have 22 employees—30 in the summer—and I’m looking to grow.
How did you come up with the name? I used to deliver empanadas to car garages and gas stations in the area. I’d show up and ask if anyone wanted to buy empanadas. It started being a joke that I’d walk in, and they’d say, “Hey, the Empanada Mama’s here.” And it just stuck.
Now that you’ve had such a successful run for the last 6 years, what’s next? I’m starting to transition my thinking into expansion. Maybe I want to open a second store or a bigger store. Maybe I’m going to do dine-in next. My initial concept was that people were just going to do exclusively takeout, and now customers are asking for seating, events, and even a food truck. So it’s pushing me in ways that I wasn’t initially planning for.
What challenges does growing the business involve? I’m 29. I’m not in a relationship at the moment. But I know I want to be a mother, regardless of whether or not I am in a relationship, whether it’s adoption or whatever. I know by my mid-thirties I definitely want to be a mom. So, I’m torn right now with this expansion. Plus, I really enjoy my life right now. I love what I do. I get to travel for a couple weeks a year. I have an awesome staff. I know my customers by name. I’m in the kitchen cooking, which is what I love. So, I’m trying to decide on an expansion plan that will not change my life drastically that I don’t enjoy it.
What advice would you give yourself when you were first starting out? I’d tell myself to be more focused on the big picture, rather than micro-focusing. Instead of cutting onions, I wish I had stepped out of the kitchen for a minute to think about the whole business. And delegating. In the beginning, I struggled to delegate tasks because it’s my baby. But I’ve gotten to a great point where I really take so much pride in these 16-year-old girls who are working here and making massive decisions, and handling it beautifully.