An Empanada Carny Roadshow: Meet The People Behind Viva Empanada

Brion: When did your dumpling thing start?
Travis: Last January. I did it for a few months by myself. Kind of launched the whole things. Had the product, had the website, a few venues that I was going to but it—it just didn’t happen. Then I went to Costa Rica and was just chillin’ down there and I got an email from Susan saying hey, do you want to run a beer garden for us this summer. And I was like, fuck these dumplings, I guess I’m gonna [laughing] go run a beer garden.
Chivonn: [Laughing] Yeaaah!
Travis: That’s exactly what happened!

Chivonn: It was really funny too. I was in Costa Rica like a month before he was there, in the same exact town. Going to the same exact beach like two hours away. It was really interesting the first time we met. We’re talking about what we’ve done in the past year, and I was like,
I was in Costa Rica.
He’s like, so was I.
I was in Montezuma.
Shit, so was I.
Then we went to Playa de—[to Travis] where’s the space cookie beach?
Travis: Oh….I can’t remember the name of it.
Chivonn: San….something.
Travis: It’s playa something.
Chivonn: [To me] Yeah, he’s talking about walking down the beach, having this interaction with this woman selling space cookies and I was like, I was at the same beach! Did you buy space cookies? He was like, I totally bought space cookies. They were delicious. It’s one of those things how we—in the same country, in the same spot, just a month apart, and then placed in this position where we’re going to be working together—it just felt like everything was lined up. Timing is everything. We’ve just been working really well together and I think we’re a good team.

Brion: At what point working together did you two realize that? And I imagine you started running the beer garden together in May?
Chivonn: Yeah, the middle of May.
Brion: So right away you asked him what he’d do with—
Chivonn: That was a couple months into it—I think maybe July. We were in the office—and I’ve always wanted to work for myself. I’ve written a couple business plans. I know Travis has as well. Timing is everything. Just randomly saying, if you had a hundred thousand dollars what would you do, and he had this idea of doing something similar with empanadas on a very small scale and we sat down and crunched the numbers and realized that it wasn’t going to be that expensive for us to get started, to just venture out on our own and deal with the joy and sadness of success and failures. It’s definitely worth it when you’re doing it for yourself. I can’t imagine going back and working for somebody else.

Travis: It’s also a concept that you don’t see at the farmers’ markets. You see produce, you see some ice cream, meats, there’s no—the reason we thought this would work really well is because of the whole dog and pony show. You see it being made. It’s getting fried right there. Who the fuck carries around a 130lb fryer?! That’s insane. That thing sucks too. To get that back up in the truck, you have to drain that hot oil out every day. Oil is going all over the fucking place—we haven’t figured everything out yet. Our landlord is going to be pissed when he sees the backyard. [Chivonn laughs] Every time we have to strain the oil, we’re like aw man—there’s oil all over the bricks.
Chivonn: It’s so great. Like putting oil in the fryer and not closing the valve and you’re like, oh, shit, there’s oil leaking everywhere.
Travis: We saw the—so my girlfriend, she’s a photographer and she also works for Anita’s Guacamole. It’s a farm stand of a similar capacity to the way that we’ve been working. She’s been working for them for a couple years now and I just kept witnessing their business model. There’s no overhead. The hoops that they have to jump through are nothing compared to opening up a restaurant and getting all your licenses and all your certificates. We have everything. We did it. We did it on our own too, without lawyers. That was fun. It was something else. It’s like 30% of the trouble. You can go back to her [Chivonn] saying to me if you had one hundred thousand dollars, what would you do. We got off the ground with four grand. It’s nothing.

A Quote 3Brion: What was that? Buying the fryer and….
Chivonn: Licenses, equipment costs, getting into a commissary kitchen—everything you basically need to have a mobile kitchen. That’s what we have. We go and we set everything up. We’re very professional, but it is like you said [turning to Travis], that dog and pony show of seeing these people, the way he rolls the empanadas… they look fake—that’s what one woman said when she was walking by. Those things look so pretty they can’t be real. And we were like, damn right they’re real.
Brion: Which commissary kitchen are you two working out of?
Travis: It’s the one up in Northeast Philadelphia. The Bridesburg Commissary. They’re really cool. Super helpful. Good group of guys. The guy who owns it, he’s in real estate. It was his son’s idea to operate the thing. It’s nice. It’s family operated. It’s a good size.
Chivonn: And it’s open 24 hours, so you can go in whenever you are available.
Brion: How much do you pay to get in there?
Chivonn: We paid $400 to be a member and to get a copy of their license to go to the health inspector to prove that you have a commissary kitchen and then it varies in price depending on—
Travis: It’s $30 dollars an hour. That’s where overhead comes into play. That’s why we’re only doing this for a short period of time. April/May we’ll have a kitchen. We don’t know which direction that is going to go. We definitely don’t want a restaurant. We don’t want people to come into our place to sit down and eat. If anything, we’re joking about those little bank safes that slide out where you’d pay and then just take your empanada. Just a speaker and a little box.

Chivonn: Eventually we want to have our own place because we need to expand and we know it’s worth the investment. To have a place that not only we can use but that we can also rent out to other people and kind of give them a break on charging per hour because we know how expensive and hard it is when you’re trying to start off on your own and a lot of these guys all have food trucks, so that’s even more licensing, more money that goes into it. It’s important to get to a point where you can help other small business owners like yourself because everybody has to start small from the beginning and the more that we can help people that aren’t doing something similar to us—you know, we help them, they help us. It’s the same thing with the farmers’ market. Getting all of our ingredients local and from the different markets that we’re doing. So people know they’re getting quality food and the product is very fresh and we’re staying very consistent with our price.

Brion: So you’re sourcing from the same markets you’re selling at.
Travis: Same markets. We’re using their stuff, but not the meats. We have a purveyor that we use. But produce, that’s easy. Half the time, it’s just trading [laughs].
Chivonn: Yeah.
Travis: Just trade empanadas for produce that we use the next week.
Chivonn: We take care of them, they take care of us. We give them forty dollars worth of empanadas, they give us forty dollars worth of produce that we’re just going to turn around and put into the empanadas that we’re going to feed to them. So it’s just this circle of life.
Brion: Who are some of the farmers’ you’ve used?
Travis: We’ve only done three markets. We’ve done a couple festivals too—Rock The Woo in Woodbury, NJ it’s like—
Brion: The Wu-Tang Clan?
Travis: I wish. There’s a group called The FAF. They’re based out of Woodbury, NJ. Woodbury isn’t the coolest place in the world but the music festival has tons of handmade crafts, other good food vendors. We’re not just trying to focus on farmers’ markets. We’re trying to do these other pop-up things where we kind of take over a park or something. So we’re working with them now in the development of a community-building space that will be—

Vive Empanada at Rock The Woo. courtesy of VE.

Viva Empanada at Rock The Woo. courtesy of VE.

Chivonn: A multi-use park that will have food, entertainment, might have adult beverages, stuff for kids.
Travis: The FAF people are really cool. Very ambitious. But as far as farmers’ markets, yeah, we’ve only done a couple of them.
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