“I used to visit my grandmother every year in Michoacán,” said Rosalía Hirtz, owner of World Empanadas in Los Angeles, “but now I haven’t been back for over 30 years.”
“After my grandmother passed away, I just couldn’t bear to go back,” she said. “The last time I was there I saw that the streets I once knew had changed. There remained only a shadow of the childhood glimmer I once knew.”
It sounds like your grandmother was instrumental in your early development.
“Yes. She was the one who taught me to read and write in Spanish,” she continued. “My grandmother was born in the 1920’s into a Mexican family in a little town. She was a very powerful woman. Not powerful in a material way, the way we measure power here, but powerful in being. She liked to speak her mind, and one of the things that stuck with me over the years was her saying, “Tu forma de ver la vida depende del color de lentes que te pongas” (The way you view life depends on what color glasses you put on).
The Golden Agers, Giving, & Gluten-Free
“In my culture,” began Lia, “we always had reverence for the elderly. They were valuable members of our community. They were a fountain of wisdom but also of love. The culture here is different, older people are not always valued.”
Having started World Empanadas (her first business) as a Latina in her fifties, Lia’s passion shone brightly as she spoke. “I love the American culture and I believe that there’s a lot that we as older people can still give. However, there isn’t much of a forum or space for that. I wish that older people would put themselves out there more. Not just the actors and actresses, but all of us. I think that too often we get lost in the shuffle simply because we’re older or ‘not interesting.’”
Speaking of giving, the Camino Financial team said they’d deduct my pay if I forgot to say thank you for sending us a dozen empanadas at the office. So, thank you! We ate them in record time. Now, while we’re on the subject, I want to track back to a thought that I think is baked into World Empanadas: giving. Can you say a little more about how you decided to start your first business, what motivated you, and why you chose empanadas?
“I had this idea roughly 10 or 15 years ago. It was an idea that came to me when my husband and I went to Argentina. We saw that empanadas were kind of like hot dogs there; you had some in every corner and people just kind of snacked on them. People just walked around with an empanada in their hands. Obviously, I didn’t have the money to start the business; that’s why we didn’t do it sooner. At that point it was just a thought; an idea. But about three years ago, an acquaintance of ours offered us some space to start the business in the back of a liquor store. He offered us free rent for six months, and that’s when we finally started.”
That’s such a universal story too, going from humble beginnings, braving the unknown, and in your case, literally setting up shop in the back of a liquor store. Far from ideal, but you managed to persist. So what came next for you?
“During this time,” continued Lia, “my son Matt became a chef in Le Cordon Bleu in Pasadena. I asked him if he wanted to start this with me and he said yes. Within two months we got business cards, the city license, and everything else. We also did a little touch up in the back of the liquor store. At first, we made empanadas at home and tried out different doughs until we got what we wanted.”
So your idea was born in Argentina (where empanadas are wildly popular), and you began experimenting at home. Are your empanadas Argentine, then?
“Our empanadas are not really Argentine,” she remarked. “The one that’s closest to it is the sweet corn empanada. Long before ‘fusion’ restaurants became popular, I had the idea to ‘fuse’ empanadas. The first one we tried was refried beans and chile.”
Is that more of a Mexican style empanada?
“Perhaps,” Lia returned, “but every part of the world has a type of empanada: basically some kind of filling wrapped in dough. In the UK they’re called ‘pasties.’ There was this really interesting story where they would make the crust extra thick in the UK, and the workers would come with their dirty hands and grab them from the side. They would only eat the middle part so that they could throw out the dirty crust.”
So would you say there is a universal appeal about empanadas? I mean, we all need to eat, right?
“What’s so beautiful about the empanada,” began Lia, “is that you really put your energy into it. When you make food and hold it with your hands and make the crust and shapes, you put your energy into it. For me, it’s a great responsibility to feed someone; to have somebody put what I made in their body and trust me with that. But it’s also a simple food. There are no fancy ingredients. Just the basics. No colorings, no preservatives, and they’re so easy to eat. It’s perfect for the family too: dad can have the meaty ones, ham and cheese empanadas for the kids, and if you have a vegan teenager we can provide a vegan, gluten-free option.”
I can see that. Going back to your beginnings in the back of a liquor store: you started there but then went on to open your own location in May of 2015. We’re all curious: in a crowded and prominent foodie culture like Los Angeles, how have people responded to empanadas?
“People have responded in a very positive way. Food is a language. You communicate through it. There are people here who have no idea what empanadas are, and they say, ‘what is an empanada?’ and I tell them, ‘it’s a meat pie!’ They’ll taste it and come back and say, ‘it’s great!’ We talk to a lot of people and we’ve had an enormous response from the community. It’s been overwhelming, especially considering we’ve done little to no advertising. Still, we have tons of people coming in: everyone from the regular lunch crowd to the busy young wife who doesn’t want to cook tonight. They love it.”
I’m glad you just touched on the busy young wife, because there is a rise in Latina entrepreneurs doing some wonderful things, and thousands more who want to break into the entrepreneurial game. What are some of your thoughts on being a Latina entrepreneur, and what would you say to young Latina entrepreneurs?
“I’m not someone who takes anything too seriously,” began Lia, “I love that we can all do anything we want. A lot of people said to me, ‘What are you doing? Stay with what you know. You have no idea about the food industry, it’s competitive.’ And I said to myself, a lot of people have success in so many areas, why not me? And that gave me a lot of power to think and follow through with my instincts. My message to young Latinas would be, if you like something and you believe in it, read up on it, learn about it, have a plan, and then just go for it. I have no background in business, but I ask a lot of questions. To tell you the truth, I’m bad at math and everything else, but I believed in what I was doing. Instead of seeing the obstacles I said, why not me? You take one thing at a time and you will still make a hundred mistakes, but if you’re resilient and you keep going, there’s nothing that can stop you. At 58 now, I cannot tell you, there were times when I thought, ‘What am I doing?’, but then I just continued doing it.”
It sounds like your belief and your own personal power was the main driver in getting you to tackle obstacles, is that about right?
“What I am saying,” returned Lia, “is that what makes you a success, is knowing that you have the capacity to do anything you want. The worst thing that happens is that we get discouraged one day and we let that stop us. We don’t respond anymore because we’re overwhelmed. You have to allow yourself to be overwhelmed at times: maybe don’t work for a day and then come back. I think that’s the secret to everything.”
What about for someone like yourself? There are thousands of women your age who may be discouraged from starting a venture, beginning new projects, or simply stepping into the unknown. If you could join them for a coffee date, what would you say to them?
“Someone I admire once told me to go back to school because they said I was really bright. I thought, ‘I’m so old, I don’t want to go back to school.’ Then they said, ‘Well…what else are you going to do?’ That’s when it hit me. If you really want to do something you have to get out of that funk of seeing the impossible. Most of us, especially at my age, start to focus on all the hard stuff, all the impossibilities. I think we need to do that backwards. You’re not going to do it if you just sit there and let yourself die because you’re old. I’m a 58 year old Latina, and like anyone else, I still have a lot of hurdles to jump over. Just keep going. Maybe in your 50’s like me, you might not be jumping over hurdles, maybe you’re just slowly going around them. You use a stool or a ladder, but you go!”
In your eyes, are older people underestimated?
“People underestimate the value that older people can give to younger generations, yeah. We have so much to give. I think one of the most valuable things to pass down is the idea that even if you are poor, you have to feel that you have a right to be. You have to feel it; own it. That was of real value to me, when I owned myself. You cannot discriminate against me if I don’t allow you. It’s one of the important insights that we can share with younger generations: own the right to be here and then nothing else will stop you from doing what you want to do. I was born with a birth mark, for example, and I was bullied. Finally I said to myself, well I’m so sorry that I don’t look like a model and that I’m not gorgeous or perfect, but I’m still here, and I’m ok with it. We live in a culture that demands that we look a certain way, act a certain way, talk a certain way, dress a certain way; but I find that so insulting. At the end of the day, we’re all people. You are born great.”
I like that. I think it’s a powerful message for all people, young and old. Finally, given that we just started a new year, what are you looking forward to this year with World Empanadas and beyond?
“I’m looking forward to continuing to create,” she sparkled. “I think that’s the most exciting thing on earth. To create. I always say, I want to die with a bottle of wine and a few scratches. I’m also looking forward to branding World Empanadas so that it can be known to a wider audience. I want empanadas to be just as known as the burrito. Ultimately, I want to become the Starbucks of empanadas. Why not me?”