Empanada food truck finds niche in Austin, provides entrée into wholesale business

| by Elliot Maras
Empanada food truck finds niche in Austin, provides entrée into wholesale business

Cody and Kristen Fields have found success with empanadas. Photo courtesy of mmmpanadasd

Editor's Note: This is the first in a two-part series about the empanada brand 'mmmpanadas.'

There are taco trucks, egg roll trucks, cannoli trucks, pierogi trucks, crepes trucks … you name it. The food truck has proven to be an excellent merchandising vehicle for aficionados of specific types of food, so an empanada truck makes perfect sense.

To be sure, Cody and Kristen Fields, owners of mmmpanadas, love their specialty. But whereas many youthful food truck owners have their eyes set on some day opening a restaurant, these two entrepreneurs have a different vision.

The empanadas are prepared by hand and baked.

Their goal is to be a national empanada wholesaler, and they're off to a good start, having landed a regional contract with Whole Foods Market.

The Fields' food truck, mmmpanadas, is a stepping stone to success in the highly competitive wholesale grocery industry. It is not your everyday food truck story.

"It wasn't what our focus was, but then the food truck thing really exploded, and we rode that wave for several years," Cody said.

Humble beginnings

Cody was a mechanical engineer living in Costa Rica when he acquired a love for the empanadas that vendors sold from baskets outside of bars at night.

"I was just always in love with empanadas," he said.

He eventually moved to Austin, Texas, where he met Kristen and took a banking job. But he didn't like banking.

Cody never stopped thinking about empanadas, and when a bar prepared to open near his home, he and Kristen stopped in and introduced themselves to the owner. When the owner said that he was going to serve food but wasn't sure what would be on his menu, Cody and Kristen saw their entrée into the foodservice business. They told the bar owner he had to try their empanadas, and he agreed.

"The next day we went to the grocery store, bought the ingredients, made six dozen empanadas and took them to his grand opening," Cody said. "He ate one, and asked, 'how can I get these in my bar?'"

The Fieldses had no foodservice experience, but they told the bar owner they'd have his empanadas in two weeks. They found a shared kitchen to rent and started baking.

The couple believed that if more people tasted their empanadas, they could build a significant business, since no one else seemed to be offering them. A food truck impressed them as a great way to develop awareness.

"The truck just seemed like a great idea," Cody said. 

Cody and Kristen found a 24-foot former pizza truck with a serving counter on eBay for $20,000, and spent approximately $15,000 more to buy a convection oven, a freezer and a generator. A mechanical engineer by training, Cody installed the equipment himself.

They prepared and baked the empanadas in their kitchen, then froze them.

"The nice thing about our truck is that it's just heat and serve," Cody said. 

Good timing

In 2008, food trucks — aside from taco trucks serving construction sites — were not yet well established in Austin. The city did not have strict rules, so the Fieldses were able to park the truck in the driveway at their home.

While other food trucks around at the time offered full meals, the vision with mmmpanadas was to sell only empanadas. 

"We wanted it to be a traditional-style street food," Cody said.

The mmmpanadas menu initially offered 15 varieties of empanadas, but Cody and Kirsten quickly learned that this was too large a selection to manage on a food truck, so they pared the number down to eight.

A solid foundation

The Fieldses found a downtown business owner willing to lease them a parking space for $500 a month. From that space, mmmpanadas served lunch and dinner Thursday through Saturday.

The food truck also made the rounds at festivals. School carnivals and corporate campuses also proved to be lucrative. The top-selling event was the Austin City Limits Festival, where the Fieldses sold 21,000 empanadas within six days. 

South by Southwest was another major boost for the fledgling mmmpanadas food truck, whose downtown spot was just a few blocks from the Austin convention center.

By 2010, mmmpanadas had been profiled in publications that included GQ, Martha Stewart Living and Southern Living, in addition to being featured on the Food Network. It wasn't long before the Fieldses received requests for catering and special events.

"At first we said yes to everything," Cody said. "You learn that when people tell you 500 people will be at an event, sometimes there are only 75."

In recent years, the food truck business has become more crowded as additional food trucks have arrived on the scene.

"There's so much competition now with food trucks," Cody said. He is now paying $4,000 for his spot at South by Southwest.

The regulatory climate also got tougher, he said. For one thing, the Fieldses had to add an enclosure to the food truck to house the propane tank. They were also required to park the truck in a commissary. 

"The city changes something every year," Cody said. "That's been a common occurrence every year for the past 10 years."

Between the competition and the regulatory requirements, profitability has become more of a challenge for most food trucks in Austin.

"We used to make more money back in the day than we do now," Cody said. "Now, for that 10 days of South by Southwest, people want $4,000 to $10,000 for you to park your food truck there."

However, the main objective for mmmpanadas today is to promote the brand and the company's wholesale business, which is gaining traction.

Part two of this two-part series will explore the Fieldses' expansion into the empanada wholesale business.

Topics: Business Strategy and Profitability, Equipment & Supplies, Food & Beverage, Franchising & Growth, Independent Operators, Legal Issues, Vehicles

Elliot Maras

Elliot Maras is the editor of KioskMarketplace.com and FoodTruckOperator.com.

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