TAMPA — Albert Perez is trying to do for the lowly empanada what Taco Bell did for the taco.
But he's found that becoming a household word doesn't come easy in this eat-and-run age of fast food — even when your product has an edge in handling.
"You can eat an empanada with one hand and not make a mess like a taco," said the 68-year-old founder of a West Tampa original, Mr. Empanada. "Plus, most anything tastes good cooked in dough."
At the 4840 N Armenia Ave. flagship store in the same Latin neighborhood where the owners grew up, annual sales are about $1 million. Through a picture window, customers can watch a machine fold and crimp empanadas for freezing. Yet teaching people elsewhere what an empanada is remains a challenge as the chain extends its reach into Pinellas County.
Most identified with the West Indies and South America, empanada history is elusive. The British call them meat pies. In Michigan's Upper Peninsula, they are "pasties." In Argentina and Chile, the dough is made from corn rather than white flour and the sauce may be flecked with raisins. Audrey Perez, Albert's wife of 46 years and business partner, defines empanada as a "Spanish version of Hot Pockets."
Times restaurant critic Laura Reiley rated Mr. Empanada among the top 100 bay area food experiences to savor — in a category she labeled "indeterminate Latin."
A familiar sight in Tampa with six hole-in-the-wall locations, a roving food truck and a stand at the Tampa Bay Times Forum, Mr. Empanada has been a labor of love for a couple who built it working 40 hours a week on top of their full-time jobs. Albert retired after 29 years at Delta Air Lines, where he worked his way up from baggage handler to customer service representative. Audrey was one of the first female IRS collection agents in Tampa and later a Veterans Affairs loan analyst.
The inspiration came early in Albert's life. Working the 4:30 a.m. shift as a teenage short order cook at his parents' family restaurant on Armenia, he was intrigued by an early morning competitor: a sidewalk peddler selling warm empanadas at a dime apiece during shift changes in front of cigar factories.
His stepfather/chef thought an empanada business a bad idea. But that didn't stop Perez from crafting his own recipes at home and selling the results to co-workers.
"I consented to open our first store because he probably was going to do it anyway," deadpanned Audrey, 64.
Their oldest daughter, Lisa Perez Ferras, 43, remembers bringing friends and dates home in high school.
"We all sat around the table making empanadas," she said.
The family's jazzed-up repertoire of 14 empanadas goes beyond plain Jane ground beef. The big sellers are crabmeat, pizza, apple, and cheese combinations like Italian sausage, chicken and broccoli, spinach and artichoke, and guava and cream cheese. Coming soon: mac and cheese, chicken pot pie and a Philly cheese steak made from rib eye. Fish are out because they would have to be shredded to cook properly and lose their taste when frozen.
It's tasty working-class food. Priced at $2.59 to $3.09 each, the calorie count in their 4-ounce empanada is less than 300. The chain also specializes in Tampa traditions like Cuban sandwiches, deviled crab and Spanish bean soup. The average customers spends $10 for a meal and three of every four orders are takeout.
The couple's 1984 launch grew quickly to five outlets, wholesale distribution of their frozen empanadas to South Florida grocers including Costco and a deal to produce even more for the Latin foods unit of Campbell Soup. But the undercapitalized venture with too many squabbling partners collapsed only months after they sold their 49 percent interest.
"It was devastating," Audrey said. "For two years, we became recluses who did not want to be seen. We paid off debts even if they weren't ours."
Relaunched in 2003, the Mr. Empanada system closed in on $4 million in annual sales by 2011. While the chain is losing a franchised location in Brandon this month, the Perez family plans to open a store at 4946 Fourth St. N in St. Petersburg this fall. And they recently hired Matt Cutler, former chief operating officer of the 230-location Two Men and a Truck moving business, to sell Mr. Empanada franchises.
"Someday, we're going to be huge," Albert said.
Mark Albright can be reached at [email protected]