Innovating a classic: COCINA 54 introduces frozen, gluten-free empanadas

Looking for tasty, gluten-free empanadas made from scratch with fresh vegetables, antibiotic free meats, and ready in minutes? Look no more! COCINA 54 has you covered with their exclusive line of delicious frozen empanadas. 

Photo courtesy of Cecilia Panichelli

Introducing frozen, gluten-free empanadas

With a push for better-for-you products in recent years that also satisfy consumers’ need for convenience without sacrificing taste and quality, Cecilia Panichelli saw an opening in the market for her empanadas. 

Born and raised in Argentina, Cecilia moved to the US in 2000 to attend an exchange program at the University of Texas. She then spent 15 years working in the Consumer Packaged Goods (CPG) industry, working for companies such as Stubb’s Bar-B-Q, and later Nestle. 

For years her American friends would tell her how much they LOVED her empanadas. They just couldn’t get enough! Recognizing the demand for empanadas amongst Americans, Cecilia and her husband finally decided to start their own business, launching COCINA 54 in 2017. 

Photo courtesy of Cecilia Panichelli

“I had an extensive background in the CPG industry and my husband has always been an entrepreneur,” says Cecilia. “I did my research and found that consumers wanted products that were gluten-free, baked, and used fresh vegetables, but they also wanted grab & go items that fit their busy lifestyle. And finally they were craving BOLD international flavors. We know empanadas are super popular in Latin America for these same reasons so I felt it was the right time to launch them in the U.S.” 

So COCINA 54 began as a micro-business. Cecilia and her husband would make empanadas over the weekend and then deliver them to a few local stores in Austin, Texas, while they continued their day jobs. Consumers instantly fell in love with their empanadas, just as their friends had. In April of 2018 they moved from selling locally to selling in 150 stores all over Texas, launching 5 savory flavors from Traditional Beef to Bacon, Egg, & Cheese. 

Now their products can also be ordered online via their shop, reaching more mouths than ever before!  

The 20 year journey behind “overnight” success

Cecilia’s story may seem like she was an overnight success, but her journey began more than 20 years ago, back in Argentina when she was just a high school student dreaming big. 

Cecilia Panichelli, Co-founder of COCINA 54 (Photo courtesy of Cecilia Panichelli)

“Education, to me, is one of the most valuable tools that enables a person to follow their dreams,” says Cecilia.

Growing up in Argentina, Cecilia dreamed of attending the University of San Andres, the most prestigious private school in Argentina– also the most expensive. 

“I always lived a good middle class life, with working parents and food on the table. We even got to go on vacations. But this school, it was out of my family’s financial possibilities.” 

The realities of her family’s financial situation however did not deter her from her dream. Cecilia had set her mind to it, so somehow it would happen. She decided she would apply for a scholarship. And she decided she would get it. And she did! 

Attending San Andres was crucial to Cecilia’s journey toward her career and professional success. It opened new doors of possibility, showed Cecilia a different world of opportunities, and gave her the tools to face the next challenges of her life.

“It was the first time I would be moved out of my comfort zone,” she says. “What I didn’t realize is that this was just the beginning.” 

She quickly learned that growing a career or business as a Latina was not easy, especially when it came to securing capital. 

“As a Latina, and a barely 5-foot-tall woman, I found that it’s difficult to obtain access to capital, to get people to listen,” says Cecilia. “To this day, COCINA 54 is a self-funded business which limits the speed on which you grow as a business.” 

The market is ready for COCINA 54, with more and more people looking for healthier alternatives and becoming more aware of what they put in their bodies–now more than ever is the time for healthy, tasty, gluten-free empanadas. 

gluten-free empanadas

Photo courtesy of Cecilia Panichelli

And yet, even with a ready market, passionate and experience team, and an innovative product investors are still few and far between. 

“I continue to see investors write checks to other start-ups with none of the assets we bring to the table,” says Cecilia, reflecting on the struggles of accessing capital as a Latina business owner. “I do believe society is changing, but we still have a long way to go to truly have equal rights as women and as Hispanic businesses.”

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Connecting with customers through gluten-free empanadas during Covid-19

Ironically, though, Cecilia notes that it is often because of the lack of funding for minority businesses, that Latinas are more likely to be set up to run profitable businesses. 

“Uncertainty is part of our Latino heritage. When I worked in Latin America, we would have to make a plan A, B, and C depending on inflation, devaluation. We are very used to turmoil and not knowing what comes next.” 

This always planning for the unknown has its perks. Latinas are always prepared and ready to think of quick solutions to keep the business afloat and thriving.

This mentality has been especially crucial during the current Covid-19 pandemic. Before Covid-19, COCINA 54 were not selling online. Now they’re reaching new customers all over the country, and getting to connect with their customers in new and unexpected ways. 

“We started to have a huge influx of online orders which allows you to connect with the end consumer directly, so we started getting messages from customers that we have never heard before,” says Cecilia, remembering one of her favorite customer messages.  

gluten-free empanadas“It was from a customer that loves our gluten-free empanadas and decided to send them to her white American grandma who was feeling a little down and having trouble preparing her food during quarantine. A week later, we received a note from her 90 year old grandmother saying: ‘These empanadas are so delicious! THANK YOU! I will spread the word to friends and book club ladies! These were my first empanadas and I will look forward to many others.‘” 

How funny and heartwarming! 

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Think about what you can do better to improve your life 

For other minority women who are thinking of starting their own business or would like to achieve success in their profession or career, Cecilia’s advice is to reflect on where you are and whatever you are doing today, and think about what you can do better. How can you improve your situation? What actions will get you closer to your goals? 

Maybe it’s attending a prestigious school, or maybe it’s connecting with successful entrepreneurs in your field. Learn from your experiences, learn from others and find mentors, listen to them and ask them what you need. 

“If you are planning to get into the CPG world, you will need capital. You can’t quit your job today, you need a plan,” Cecilia advises. “How can you afford that dream? If your plan is to grow your career, I would say speak up more, ask for that additional project, for that raise. Make yourself visible. Be bold. And know that it is not overnight success. My journey started more than 20 years ago when I earned my scholarship.” 

Fast-forward 20 years, and she is changing the game for healthy, international frozen foods with her innovative better-for-you empanadas. 

If you would like to get a taste of COCINA 54’s tasty variety of healthy, ready to go, gluten-free empanadas, don’t hesitate to place your order today.  

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Empanada Fork seals the deal with new products by Latina entrepreneur Hipatia Lopez

empanada fork Hipatia LopezThe Empanada Fork Utensil aka, “The Empanada Fork Press Tool and The Empanada Fork Pastry Sealer”, is a utensil that is easy, effortless, fast, painless and resulting in beautiful dough design for those whom cherish in food presentations.

Making empanadas, turnovers, calzones and other filled pastries is a lot of fun, but it can also be very time consuming and painful when it comes to sealing the dough/pockets/pastries, etc, which was how the idea was born. The Empanada Fork Utensil made of stainless steel with a soft handle which makes it easy to use. This innovative product is a special design with fork-tines and a sturdy utensil which is a great addition to any kitchen.

The Empanada Fork Press Tool seals your empanadas without using the old technique of the regular standard fork. Just push down on your pastry and “boom”, turnover for another seal (if needed, depending on texture of dough) and a complete seal in 2 seconds, next…

This year we launched a new addition to our “Empanada Fork Utensil” family, “The Empanada Stampers!” This new product is a tool to stamp the empanada dough to identify the filling inside the dough: cheese, beef, veggie and chicken. So now you can entertain an abundance of different empanada varieties without the worry about how your guest will know what filling it is. Also great tool for those who have food preferences and dietary constrains. The empanada fork Hipatia Lopezstampers will work well on both size forks, regular and large.

empanada fork Hipatia Lopez

Cooked empanadas pressed with the new utensils, great for people with food preferences or dietary constraints.

Fans here you go…, I am delivering my promise.

So we have come a long way and now you can enjoy making and eating empanadas with any filling, with a complete seal, a choice of a size along with the description stamped for the identification of the filling and will be great display for entertaining.



Empanadas can be eaten for breakfast, lunch and dinner. They can be served as appetizers or snacks and they can easily make a full and satisfying meal. Lets not forget the sweet side of filling, the desserts. Use the Empanada Fork Utensil today and relish extraordinary experiences while making your tasty empanadas.

I say these products definitely “seal” the deal. The Empanada Fork Utensil by H.L. Unico LLC was invented and patented by Hipatia Lopez.

Follow Hipatia Lopez in these Social Media Outlets:  IG @Empanadafork; FB @Empanadaforkutensil, Twitter @Empanadafork


Social media and empanadas at Feria de Negocios Hispanos de New Jersey

Two successful Hispanic entrepreneurs who built their business around empanadas and social media will relate their stories as keynote speakers at the Feria de Negocios Hispanos de New Jersey this coming Tuesday July 18 at the Pines Manor in Edison New Jersey.


So what is an empanada? According to Carlos Serrano, “Empanada Guy,” the delicious shaped half-moon empanadas are fried or baked turnovers stuffed with meat or veggies that adopt different shapes and names all over the world.

“Empanadas are thought to have originated in Galicia, Spain. However, you will find that they are made by different cultures and go by various names,” Carlos said. Some of the names are Meat Pies (American), Empanadas (Latin Spanish), Pastelillos (Latin/Spanish), Pastelitos (Latin/Spanish), Empanadillas (Latin/Spanish), and Beef Patties (Jamaica) or Pate (Haitian Creole)​, Pastel (Portuguese) or ​Pastel de Forno (Brazilian).


Empanadas |

Born and raised in Newark, NJ, and of Puerto Rican origin, Carlos began his empanada business in the garage of his house and now he manages a multimillion dollar company with nine food trucks, a restaurant and two mall shops. Although empanadas are the main theme in his menus, other tasty Caribbean and Latino dishes are offered at his locations.

Carlos signature empanadas like the lobster empanada, the pulled pork empanada or the sweet apple cinnamon empanada have made him the fastest-growing gourmet food truck company in the country. “I started six years ago with $40 in my pocket and became a national TV spoke person with a national campaign to make empanadas known in every corner of this country and beyond,” Carlos said to

Carlos believes there are no secrets to success in America. “It all depends on how bad you want it, how emotionally committed you are to your success,” he said. “You can’t have a sense of entitlement, if you work hard and overcome the obstacles there is a reward,” he shared.


Carlos Serrano, owner and founder, Empanada Guy

“We make a lot of excuses, and we don’t realize that sometimes dreams and fantasies are different things. Don’t blame your culture or your parents and quit negative people around you –my grandmother used to say ‘dime con quien andas y te diré quien eres,’ and she was right!”

His passion for cooking comes in part from his “Mama.” Carlos lived with his grandmother in Puerto Rico for some time when he was a teenager. “She was amazing in the kitchen. She did everything from scratch,” he said. “She taught me stability and work ethics, and to get up early, do your job, stop complaining, and do the right thing.”

His notoriety started in 2013, when he won Lifetime’s “Supermarket Superstar,” and was invited to participate in the Food Network’s “Beat Bobby Flay.”

Carlos success has also been the result of his active social media engagement, and a great connection with his customers. He started in MySpace many years ago and now has 19K followers on his Facebook page.

Tired of making empanadas, Hipatia Lopez revolutionized the empanada world

The story for Hipatia Lopez, one of the 0.3 percent Latina inventors in the country, started on the day before Christmas. “My family and I were making over 100 empanadas for the family gathering and my hands were getting tired of making the repulgue,” she said –the border to seal the empanada so the stuffing does not get loose in the frying process.


Hipatia Lopez, inventor of the Empanada Fork


Hipatia thought, “There must be a better way to do this.” Well, there was and Hipatia designed and launched a kitchen utensil known now as the “empanada fork” that allows you to make empanadas at a light speed.

Long story short, Hipatia won last year the national contest for Project American Dreams, a national initiative by Latina entrepreneur Lili Gil Valetta and Home Shopping Network (HSN) sponsored by USBank. After several awards and recognitions for her tool, Hipatia was on her way to showing her invention to 90 million homes in the USA!

“I show up in every occasion to promote my tool; I do contests, accelerators, competitions, any opportunity to get out there and talk about my product,” she said. “Most small startups are afraid of showing up or networking but that is the only and best way to get your product known,” she shared.


Hipatia Lopez at Project American Dreams

Hipatia is also an active social media influencer in several platforms where you can follow her under “@empanadafork.” She is now determined to encourage other women become patented inventors. “There is a very small number of Latina inventors and probably not because of lack of ideas but mostly because they do not know how to handle the patent process. I will be happy to talk to anyone who contacts me on social media to help them achieve their dreams,” she said.

Carlos Serrano and Hipatia Lopez will share how they became successful business owners, empanadastheir struggles and their achievement on July 18 at he Feria de Negocios Hispanos de New Jersey. Attendance is free but you must register here.