Rocky’s Empanadas started out as an underdog in every sense of the word. Without funding, a culinary degree or food service industry experience behind it, the company launched in the Seattle suburbs on a whim. The aim? Replace a slice (or two) of America’s massive pizza delivery industry with empanadas.
It’s a lofty goal. In Argentina, the home country of Rocky’s Empanadas founder Rodrigo (Rocky) Caamano, empanadas are ubiquitous. In Buenos Aires, they are like a religion, a staple at home, and in fast-food culture. While there aren’t figures to show just how big the city’s empanada industry is, think of them like coffee in Seattle.
A stroll down any Buenos Aires street will surely lead to empanadas. This is why in 2016, Caamano, fed up with the monotony of his 20 years in software development, didn’t hesitate to abandon his career and start selling empanadas.
But in America, we’re loyal to our pizza. As of the latest report, the North American pizza industry was worth $50.7 billion of the $144.68 billion global pizza market. A California Pizza Kitchen survey found that 83 percent of Americans would give up something (taxi services, bacon, coffee, or an hour of sleep) in exchange for a year of free pizza on demand. In contrast, many people here don’t even know what an empanada is.
Despite American naiveté about good Latin American food, Caamano had a hunch. With no professional training or experience in the foodservice industry, Caamano and his wife Wendy were sure of only two things: millions of people love empanadas, and nobody was offering them for takeout in their home state.
“It didn’t feel like a crazy idea,” he said, remembering his sudden career shift. “I’ve always been in startups, and am conditioned for working really hard. I prefer my independence. Coming from the high-pressure environment of technology startups, I was good with the challenge and hard work of growing my own business.”
Relying on his Argentinian heritage and passion for good food, Caamano dove in headfirst. With a Kitchen-Aid mixer and an at-home oven, he experimented with recipes, tried different pre-made and homemade doughs, and hosted dozens of taste tests with friends and neighbors.
Every step of the way, he made decisions about the way things needed to be done, from food production to customer service, to packaging. Then, he worked tirelessly to bring those decisions into reality.
After only two months of preparations, the Caamanos officially opened Rocky’s Empanadas for business. With four flavors and a perfected chimichurri, they thought their empanada delivery service was ready for the real world. They laugh now, looking back on that day and the chaos of their first three orders.
“Our customers all wanted their empanadas at the same time. We were late to all three deliveries, and we realized that delivery is far more complicated than it seems. So that night, we decided no delivery, pick-up only. The next day, five cars were parked in our home driveway, waiting for empanadas.”
The model wasn’t sustainable. But it was a start, and enough to show the Caamanos that people in their community were willing to pay for their empanadas. The first year flew by as word of mouth picked up. Rocky’s Empanadas started to gain street cred.
Two food trucks were launched, set up in high-traffic areas including the Microsoft campus and nearby breweries. Hours were expanded from dinner to include lunch. With revenue gradually building, Rocky’s Empanadas moved into a small, shared commercial kitchen. While Wendy stayed on at her full-time job, Rodrigo worked on the business around the clock. He started hiring. By the end of 2017, sales were up 130 percent.
Today, standing in the back of the company’s new kitchen, surrounded by commercial food prep tables, refrigerators, pastry presses and ovens, the operation feels anything but mom and pop. “Rocky” has become something of a local celebrity. The variety of flavors they offer has more than doubled, and Caamano recently added bite-size and dessert options to the menu.
The new location also means the Caamanos and their employees are no longer limited by shared space. Investing in their own industrial kitchen was a risk, but one that was necessary to keep producing their product in-house, homemade, at scale. The risk paid off. The company is now set to climb from the mid-six figures into seven-figure revenues.
With some creativity and elbow grease, Caamano built out his new kitchen on a tight budget. Now, he has a hub to escalate the business and supply more food trucks, retail locations, wholesale orders, and pop-up shops.
Before the expansion, Rocky’s Empanadas could produce a maximum of 3,000 empanadas a week, which required eight hours per day, five days per week. With more space and better equipment, the company is set up to produce three times as many hand-pressed empanadas each week in under 10 hours of labor.
The Caamanos regularly field new wholesale requests and partnership opportunities from grocery stores, wineries, food events, and restaurants. Closing the books on 2019, the business was up by more than 1,0000 percent from the first year.
The current infatuation with dumplings is helping too. Rocky’s Empanadas was a popular booth at the recent Tom Douglas Dumpling Fest in Seattle. The Caamanos see this trend as an opportunity to help educate people about empanadas—using social media and connecting with Argentinians introducing empanadas to food scenes in other U.S. cities.
“We are willing to go as big as we can. We debate a lot about whether we should go the investor route, or keep growing organically. For now, we’re focused on keeping the costs down and networking with other companies. In the food business, everything counts.”
Though they are enjoying the growth, the Caamanos know better than to expect the path forward to be easy. Keeping the business in the black while scaling is a constant balancing act. They are still adjusting to their new normal of unexpected issues and challenges popping up all the time.
You have to be so tough to succeed in what we’re trying to do. We’ll think we’ve hit rock bottom, and still, something will go wrong. We’re learning to be prepared for anything and be ok with some grey hair.
Maintaining reliable, long-term employees is another obstacle. To them, the key is perseverance. Having the grit to get up after each new problem, being willing to do the hard work, and keeping the wheels turning day after day.
“You have to be so tough to succeed in what we’re trying to do,” Wendy Caamano said. “We’ll think we’ve hit rock bottom, and still something will go wrong. We’re learning to be prepared for anything and be ok with some grey hair. This business is always going to be tough, but Rodrigo is tougher.”
Ultimately, Rocky’s Empanadas is confident they can carve out a stake for their business in the behemoth industry that is American take-out and delivery. Through more food trucks, wholesale, a reboot of the attempt at delivery, and piggybacking on current foodie trends, the sky is the limit.
Because really, all the things that make pizza so appealing are the same attributes that make empanadas irresistible. Dough, cheese, meat, and other warm goodness, sprinkled with cultural flair, all together in the palm of your hand. Tastes like magic~