We Chat With: Nicolas Ibarzabel of 5411 Empanadas
Named for Argentina's country code, "54," and Buenos Aires' city code, "11," the three partners of 5411 Empanadas brought fresh, homemade Argentinean sweet and savory pastries right from grandma's kitchen to the streets of Chicago. Three years later, the catering business has grown to a food truck, and a brick and mortar storefront.
Nicolas Ibarzabel, Mariano Lanfranconi, and Andrés Arlia, the three men behind 5411 Empanadas didn't start out as food truckers; their realm of business and scholastic achievements didn't have much to do with rolling, stuffing, and baking empanadas. Lanfranconi studied economics at the University of Chicago, Ibarzabel studied communications at Northwestern, and Arlia has a well-touted advertising background. The three had been moonlighting after their jobs and school, working long, late hours in a rented kitchen, shaping their idea into various filled pastries. But it was when Ibarzabel finally decided to quit his job and focus on starting Chicago's first and only empanada catering business that 5411 Empanadas was officially born.
Two years later, and after a lengthy battle with city hall, 5411 Empanadas branched out to not only a food truck, but also as an outspoken crusader for the legalization of food trucks. When they added their brick and mortar location at Clark and Surf in Lakeview in early July, their clout went up. They are now restaurant owners in addition to running one of Chicago's most successful food trucks.
This week, I checked out 5411's brick and mortar location, grabbed a handful of empanadas (the ham and cheese and banana nutella are both worth taking the trip for), and spoke to Ibarzabel about what it's been like to transition a food truck to a permanent location, the differences between a restaurant and a food truck, and the importance of a good empanada filling. Plus, he gave me his take on what he thinks of Chicago's newly introduced ordinances.
Why Empanadas? Well, the three of us partners are from Argentina. Empanadas in Argentina are like burgers here. So we have them every single day. We've been living here for seven years now, and have not really found a lot of empanadas we like. I think our concept of empanadas is very, very good in so many ways. It's a finger food, but it also can be an appetizer, and it can be a main dish. We think it has great potential. Not a lot of people are doing much with them, so we thought, 'Why not?' We believed in the concept of the empanada and that's why we started this business.
What is the secret to making the perfect empanada? I think the dough is very important. Everybody has his or her own way. We use a dough that is very, very thin, so it's very flaky. And we give more importance to the filling rather than the dough. You want to have a good dough, but a very thin dough so that what you are eating is really food, and not just a very thick crust. And that is hard. We started the empanadas about three years ago and now it's much better than when we started. It's experience. It's doing empanadas every single day, and that's how we make it.
Who taught you how to make empanadas? My Grandma, my mom. Every grandma has "the best recipe." So that's pretty much how we did it: from recipes, family recipes. It's all the flavors. We started trying different options, different ingredients, and different ways of doing them. I think we got to a point where we have a pretty good menu, and some pretty good products.
Which one is your favorite? My favorite is ham and cheese. It sounds very simple, but it's actually very surprising. I have seen that the beef and ham and cheese are the two favorite empanada flavors. Here in the United States, we have found that people don't tend to order the ham and cheese. But when they do order it for the first time, they cannot stop. It's actually very unique.
You were one of the first modern food truck vendors on the scene. Knowing what you know now, with the ordinances and city hall battles, would you do it over differently? Would you still have started a food truck? Definitely. We still run the food truck. For us, the truck was what put us out there. Before the truck we were open for one and a half years with just catering and delivering. We did well, but it was very limiting. Not a lot of people knew about us. When we went out on the truck, it was a big hit right from the start. That not only gave us a lot of business from the truck, but that also launched us for deliveries, and people started hiring the truck for weddings and private events. So the truck for us was so important. I would definitely do it again; and I am also thinking, why not open a second truck. Right now, the truck gives us stability. We know right now that we can do so-so with the store for a few months. The truck, with the deliveries that are already very established, will hold it up for awhile.
How has competition with limited parking affected the truck? It is getting tougher. The sales last year were better. And now the city is getting very, very tough on us. On the other hand, there are so many new trucks out there. So now it's limited where we can go. There are now more and more trucks fighting for the same spots, the same clients. But we're still doing good.
What do you think of the new ordinances introduced? I don't agree with many of the things that are in there, mainly with starting the GPS in our trucks. I don't know, I think it's kind of invasive to freedom. Do we really need to have a GPS in case we do something wrong? Why just the trucks? Why not put one in my car, just in case I pass through red lights. I don't really get it. I think it's just wrong. I thought that we were all innocent until proven guilty. It looks very obvious to me that the people who wrote it were very influenced by restaurant owners. It's so biased and obvious.
When they passed this, they thought we would totally embrace this new ordinance, but now they are very, very surprised that we reacted negatively. Cupcake truck parked outside of a steakhouse? That's competition? Really? We're paying taxes, starting businesses, creating jobs, investing. I can understand why a restaurant owner would want to stop food trucks, I get it. But that someone can root for it, that I don't understand.
Do you have any advice for anyone thinking of starting a food truck? It's very tough. It's long hours, but it's a lot of fun. I love the part of being in contact with customers, being out there in the streets. You can actually see how people react and it's a lot of fun. But it's not that easy. There are a lot of trucks—a lot, a lot of trucks. We've had a blast. We would do everything again the same. It's been great.
How would you compare owning the brick and mortar spot to owning a roaming food truck? It's so different. I mean everything—everything is so different. Going out with the truck everyday and struggling to find parking—it's so different. At the store, we can have the empanadas right out of the oven, compared to having them in the truck. Here in Chicago, we can't bake on the truck, so the empanadas have to be sitting in the truck for a couple of hours. They are still good, but not as good as if they are fresh, right out of the oven. On the other hand, with the truck, we can pretty much move around. The truck is much busier at lunchtime; and here, lunch is much more quiet, and then it picks up at night. But the store is important. We work from here, we launch the truck from here, we do our deliveries from here, so it's good to have a home base and not have to rent a kitchen.
The best way to try one of Ibarzabel's empanadas is to visit the storefront on Clark Street or follow the 5411 Empanada food truck on Facebook or Twitter.
Twitter: @5411 Empanadas