By: Christopher Cornejo, For Presente Magazine
Where else can you find delicious and authentic Argentinian cuisine that also comes with the home-style Pittsburgh feel? Nowhere else but Mi Empanada, located on Butler Street in Lawrenceville, Pittsburgh. Mi Empanada may seem like any other specialty food shop on the block, but owners Ivan Gil-Silva and his partner Rachel Jenkins can attest that it is much more than that. Founded in 2017, Mi Empanada grew from a small pop-up and catering business. However, over time they established a storefront and a reputation for having some of the most delicious food in Pittsburgh. Not only that, their local and cultural ties as well as their community-backed resume mark them as a local gem in the city of Pittsburgh.
“Local culture and our involvement in the local community has been a big part of what has propped us up, says Gil-Silva.”
Jenkins, coming from a marketing background, developed and runs the business design and floor plan aspects for the store. Ivan, being from Argentina and having the recipes, spearheads the cooking and kitchen side of things. They started this business from the ground up, with their cooking first being tasted by friends at gatherings.
“We started this from our bootstraps, making them at home, serving for friends at parties, but we got this idea then just went with it. I was in music production and Rachel was doing shirt design and embroidery.”
Through all the challenges they face as business owners, deciding to work together was one of the easier decisions they had to make.
“In terms of the decision to go for, and we know we both had the necessary skills for forming a business, plus we were already together so that decision was easy,” says Jenkins. “And these few years later we just ended up being a really good team.”
The pair prove just how good of a team through their various awards. Ivan won Immigrant entrepreneur 2020 in the food industry, and the restaurant won #1 empanada in the west coast of Florida 2020 for Empanada fest. Their new-wave empanada style has certainly gained some traction in Pittsburgh and beyond.
Tapping Into the Culture
Unlike other cities in the U.S., the empanada is not a staple or at least a familiar food in Pittsburgh. Jenkins and Gil-Silva however, saw this as an opportunity. The pair specifically thank transplants from the tech industry who were already familiar with empanadas. Many times in their previous positions they would find the opportunity to sell their empanadas in smaller quantities.
“It may start I was doing sound for an event and she was designing shirts for the event, and we would get permission to sell there, and it became almost like a cult classic, says Gil-Silva. “We did find a niche here, I don’t think we would stick out as much if we were somewhere in Florida or DC.”
They attribute a good amount of success to the ever-growing Latin population and identity in the city. This is a helpful catalyst that allowed the popularity of their empanadas, and they are still being made in the same style that Gil-Santos grew up accustomed to.
“The momentum came from seeing the influx of the Latin culture and being a native from Pittsburgh, it’s not something I had seen before,” says Jenkins. “The market was always there but the interest was new, especially in Pittsburgh. We are making homemade food that would be the same as my mother or grandmother made.”
The pair are also mindful to cater to their local audience, understanding that many in the area had never even heard of an empanada, let alone tried one. They focused on finding the right balance between their various markets.
“We have the traditional beef argentine, but with some of our newer recipes, there is no buffalo chicken empanada, until we made it available at Mi Empanada,” says Gil-Silva. “As we grow to, we always want to maintain inclusivity across the board. You have to make everyone comfortable, whether it’s the foreigner who wants to get a taste of home or the local resident who wants to order something they are familiar with.” “Quick cuisine is how we would describe it, something that is very approachable, American, and palatable.”
The two are also very passionate about establishing a community-like atmosphere for their store-front and its employees. Many of the younger employees working there are or used to be considered at-risk youth until they began working at Mi Empanada.
“Some of the people we hire are kids who don’t get chances from others, and even though they make hundreds of dollars in mistakes sometimes, you empower them by believing in them and giving them an opportunity. You have younger kids that would have been at-risk youth, now with us making some pretty fancy food. Kids like those are the most powerful ones, they’re just disenfranchised.”
Jenkins and Gil-Silva also speak about the impact of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and how it has affected their business and others.
Feeling the Weight of the Pandemic:
“COVID is definitely the biggest kill-off of small business, and we have been tested but because we are so hands-on we thankfully have made it through,” says Jenkins. “Around November of last year and the end of the year, many businesses just walked away because they couldn’t afford it.
They also acknowledge the different needs of their employees, not hesitating to sacrifice business profits over the wellbeing of those who work under them. They find the way business models have developed recently, are clear contrasts to previous widely-used ones, where there were clear disparities between employees and bosses. They feel the pandemic has changed business models forever, but they keep “making it through the fire.” They are even willing to sacrifice their own personal funds to ensure their business stays afloat and their employees are happy.
“We’ve had to pull from our personal savings so that the business could be maintained as well as maintain our employees. There are days where we’ll say my staff is not feeling well so I’ll step in or we’re closing down for the day, because people are not machines,” says Gil-Silva. “By understanding who people are outside of their job, in their job you are equals, there isn’t that much of an inequality.”
When asked about their potential plans for the future, they shared information on another location, but only shared a hint to a different plan they have in mind.
“We’re working on another location. It’s very much the early contract phase, building and permitting phase,” says Gil-Silva. “We are also considering expanding a bit in terms of our cuisine but that’s a secret for now.”
The pair are excited about what the future holds, and hope to connect even more with the city with their prospective projects.
“As for our second location we want to continue to expand what we feel is something special in Pittsburgh and continue expanding something that has not been done here yet,” says Jenkins.
It’s been done in other places but we both feel that Pittsburgh is ready for it.
Rachel Jenkins and Ivan Gil-Silva are a pair of business owners that embody the progressive yet homegrown spirit the city of Pittsburgh has come to represent. Mi Empanada is a business born from passion and community-building, and they hope to continue to grow this community, one empanada at a time.