If you went to St. Thomas University, Florida International University or the University of Miami, you are well aware of the next local business we're spotlighting: HalfMoon Empanadas! Those carts always carried the best empanadas and in honor of Empanada Day, we're about to discover what makes them so dang good.
Created and owned by Pilar and Juan Zavala in 2008, they know a thing or two about what makes a really great empanada. Their first location in South Beach was shut down in 2010 due to financial reasons and so, they changed their business plan. Now, they can be found at more unconventional places, such as universities or the Miami International Airport.
You can still stop by the commissary shop (860 NE 79th Street, Miami, Fl 33138) if you want to get your empanadas at a ventanita (especially with COVID-19 ruining our lives). You can also order from their website and we are also on all of the major third-party delivery platforms.
While you're already here, let me know what's your favorite flavor! Either comment below or go show me some love here.
What inspired you to start HalfMoon Empanada back in 2008? Why do you think you have been so successful in the business for so many years?
I toyed with the idea in my head for close to a decade until I finally found the courage to leave my parents’ small business to start HalfMoon. Even though I spent more than two years developing the brand, concept and business plan and despite all that preliminary work, the first couple of years were a train wreck.
Nevertheless, I loved what I was doing and trying to build even in the worst of times, which were quite painful. Two things saved me from bankruptcy (1) my amazing wife and biz partner, Pilar, who has a rare combination of vision and relationship-building skills and (2) I just continued getting up every time I got my ass kicked.
Why did you open your first location in South Beach, especially in 2008?
I’m still trying to figure that out hehe. Actually, it was the worst possible timing and a really poor, overpriced location. However, that mistake forced us to tweak our model and really find our sweet spot commercially. We had a huge sunk cost but learned very quickly what we needed to do.
Is what’s going on now with COVID-19 reminding you of previous hardships with the business?
Very much so. In fact, this crisis as serious as it is feels less stressful than previous crises I have lived through. I know we are going to have to rebuild some stuff at HalfMoon but it’s like I have full confidence we will thrive. In the past, I remember thinking we might not make it, a lot. I also feel very fortunate that my dad’s life experience gives me perspective in a crisis because he endured truly dramatic and dire circumstances. What I have endured is nothing compared to his hardships. I think about his and my ancestor’s experiences a lot.
What made you go after non-traditional places like the airport and universities?
Survival instinct. We realized that we performed really well in high foot traffic locations, such as festivals, and we did not need a lot of square footage. We got the door slammed in our faces a lot but we got lucky in places like the University of Miami where they had an unused cart for example.
What is your most popular signature empanada? What was the inspiration for creating these?
The cheesy gaucho. I wanted to give customers a little more versatility in terms of flavor profiles. We always play around with fillings, so it just kind of happens. In fact, we’ve introduced countless flavors over the years, however, it seems that people always default mostly to what is familiar.
Who comes up with the ideas for new empanadas or how to perfect classic recipes?
Juan is responsible for any new items or flavors. At this stage, however, we really focus on consistent food quality and improving our production facility. We are committed to growing and eventually scaling without compromising food quality.
What is your most popular traditional empanada?
Beef and chicken.
Why make square pies? I’ve never seen those before!
We wanted to have a larger empanada for customers that want basically a meal in one empanada. If you get our bacon egg & cheese square pie with a coffee, you’re good to go for breakfast.
Which item from the whole menu surprised you that it became so popular? (I.E. You always thought the classic would always be popular but it turned out to be the square pie.)
I’m actually surprised that people want sweet empanadas so frequently since I always eat savory flavors. In fact, we are going to introduce some new sweet flavors soon.
Is there a reigning supreme empanada at either FIU and/or at UM?
In our 12 years of business, our top selling flavors, beef, chicken, ham & cheese, and spinach, perform pretty much the same at all locations.
If you could describe the employees at HalfMoon Empanadas in one word, what would it be?
We have been extremely fortunate to have had a few key, exemplary employees that have stepped up when we most needed them.
We lost a key employee and incredible person, Karina, a couple of years ago in a tragedy. Karina, at one point, actually offered to defer her salary when we were in a bad spot. Recently with this health crisis, we had an employee offer to work without pay if we needed him to until things returned to normal.
These gestures and this level of commitment can only humble you as a biz owner. I’ve dealt with numerous difficult situations: internal theft, having to fire people of course, etc. but the employees that commit and buy into the idea of building something important, creating something new, make it worth the pain.
Juan and Pilar have two adorable kids! Do they help you both out in any way?
My kids are still too young but soon we’ll be teaching them to make empanadas. Hehe
If you can't make it out to one of the airport or on-campus locations, make sure to visit their commissary! They're even Abuela approved.
860 NE 79th Street, Miami, Fl 33138
They have locations at:
Miami International Airport - D29 & F11
University of Miami - Jenkins Building, Memorial Building, Communication Building
Florida International University - PG6 Building
St. Thomas University
Miami Beach Convention Center, Events Only