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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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Latina entrepreneur achieves American Dream growing healthy food

Cindy Cruz Agropek founder and CEO in Puerto Rico

Cindy Cruz Agropek founder and CEO in Puerto Rico

Cindy Cruz Torres is the CEO of Agropek LLC, a small agricultural business dedicated to the cultivation, harvest, and sale of healthy food. Cindy, one of AccessLatina Accelerator finalists, has proven once again that hard work, perseverance and dedication can overcome any obstacle and bring success. However, the road to success for Cindy was anything but easy.

According to the Brookings Institution, nearly 13 percent of the US population is foreign born accounting for nearly 40 million individuals. Immigrants coming to the USA are allured by the American Dream, the belief that if they work hard and play by the rules, they can achieve success.

This belief universally resonates in many people like Cindy Cruz. Even though there is no guarantee that they will achieve success, Cindy stands at the top of the heap revealing that the American Dream is still alive and well.

So how did it all start?

According to Cruz, she was not a business-minded person and like many nationals from Puerto Rico, had little money working for someone else. However, the economic crisis in 2010 led to her being laid off.

“At the time I was pregnant with my first child. Living with my parents gave the time to ponder about my future,” she recalls, and soon the first seeds of a business venture evolved in her mother-in-law’s backyard.

She glanced over the landscape and thought that perhaps she should venture into the agriculture business. Locally, there was a serious shortage of quality foods; however, Cindy had no acumen in business, had never taken any economic classes and knew of no one in business.

“I did not even know what being an entrepreneur meant and had no idea how to start a business,” she shared with LIBizus.

Facing the challenges to achieve healthy food

Agropek workers healthy food

Cindy with Agropek workers in beautiful Puerto Rico

Although she had attended the University of Puerto Rico in Ponce and obtained degrees in accounting and forensic psychology, Cindy faced a major obstacle, lack of capital investment.

Everyone she spoke to asked about prior experience in agriculture and her business plan, none of which she had.

But most importantly, her biggest challenge was lack of confidence, great insecurity and the fear of failing. “I did not have a lot of savings and it would destroy many lives if I lost everything in a foolish business venture,” she affirmed.

She did not know what the toll of a new business venture would have on her lifestyle and pregnancy. Would she be able to cope as a mother, wife, daughter and business woman all at the same time?

Preparing for the future takes time and investment

Cindy then spent the next few months reading about her potential future business in agriculture. She spoke to many people, read the local laws, invested in workshops and seminars. She spoke to other business people and her family.

“The conclusion was that if I did not try I would never know,” she recalls. She was keenly aware that the path to any business was fraught with difficulty because the economy was poor and unpredictable.

In 2010, she finally launched Agropek on a small scale offering non-processed foods. However, her competitive edge was that her products were distinguished by quality and freshness. Then in 2015 Agropek added new products as processed (value-added products).

Within a few months, her customers started to make positive comments about the high nutritional value and durability of the healthy food. Over the next few years, her business started to expand.

By 2015, she had enlisted several other Latino business women to help start other stores in Puerto Rico. Today, Agropek is a profitable business that has created jobs for Latinos and Americans as well.

Looking back at the past five years, Cindy points out that her success was largely due to her ability to function as a leader who was able to multitask.

“I knew that failure was not an option and had prepared well for the business, despite having no background in the corporate world,” she shares.

Reaping what you sow

Value-added products are natural with no preservatives

Value-added products are natural with no preservatives

Today, she continually faces challenges but is not afraid to tackle them. “Success,” she says, “ also builds confidence.”

Even though she initially aimed her business at Latinos, the overwhelming popularity of her products has attracted people of all races and cultures. She strongly feels there is a need for more Latino women to enter the business world because there are opportunities for those who work hard.

“Latino women have always had the ‘work-hard’ spirit , one virtue which is difficult to find. For Latinas who want to venture into business, I encourage them to create good work ethics and develop strong social bonds. There will be disappointments and failures along the way, but the path for those who persist is marked with success,” Cindy said.

As to why Agropek has succeeded when there are so many other similar businesses, Cindy believes her foods are focused on “Healthy and Responsible Eating.”

What makes a good entrepreneur? “A successful entrepreneur should have the following qualities: passion, vision and perseverance. My favorite quote, which she abides by in daily life is, ‘Make a habit of helping others, or at least to do no harm’,” she shared.

As our politicians continue to debate the economic benefits of Hispanic immigrants, they should constantly be reminded that many profitable American companies were developed by individuals born outside continental USA such as Cindy.

Foreign born individuals are more likely to start a business than someone born in the USA. Businesses like one that Cindy Cruz operates also employ many Americans. Her success epitomizes that even today, one can achieve the American Dream.