Through her Cocina 54 empanadas, Cecilia Panichelli brings the heritage and flavor of her home to Texas.
By Delilah Alvarado, photos courtesy of Cocina 54
Austin is no stranger to the various and rich styles of Mexican and Latin cuisine. However, finding authentic Latin cuisine in grocery stores besides burritos and tacos proves more difficult. One Austin woman set out to change this.
After moving to Austin in 2002, Cecilia Panichelli was missing a famous dish native to her homeland of Argentina: empanadas.
An empanada is a pastry turnover made of dough, either fried or baked, that can be stuffed with anything. It can be made hearty with meat, or sweet with jam. Panichelli grew up eating and making the pastry in Argentina, where they are traditionally baked instead of fried and usually savory.
“I grew up in a big family surrounded by delicious food,” Panichelli says. “I would make batches and bring them to the office or for big gatherings and birthday parties. [Empanadas] were always a part of our lives.”
Unable to find empanadas in Austin, Panichelli decided to start her own company, Cocina 54 Empanadas, to offer an authentic, fresh option that families could eat on the go.
“I wanted something to fit into people’s busy lifestyles,” she says. “I noticed people just were on the go and wanted to cook something in 30 minutes and I said, ‘I think there is something here.’”
Panichelli identified consumer habits from her previous job in the consumer packaged goods industry. Her background in the industry helped her develop a business plan for producing and selling her empanadas and her vision became reality in 2017 after a lot of research
and recipe tweaks.
“When you have a family recipe and it’s something you’ve [used]for so long, now you have the challenge of making this for mass production,” Panichelli says.
Her business model proved successful. Individually wrapped, frozen empanadas are now available in multiple store chains such as H-E-B, Walmart, Central Market and more. This year, she became a finalist in PepsiCo’s WomanMade program which grants business funds to advance startups.
Cocina 54 currently offers four types of empanadas that are gluten-free with antibiotic-free meat and fresh ingredients with packaging featuring an art design commonly found in Argentina called Filete Porteño.
“Customers started finding us online due to COVID and they reached out,” Panichelli says. “So, we started delivering.”
While COVID-19 has proven challenging, it has not stopped Panichelli from pursuing her vision for the future. She hopes that everyone who eats the empanadas gets the “flavor, passion, family, fun and heritage” she infuses in each bite.