Full Plate
With expansion looming, Empanada Mama owner Kendall Bajek looks to add to the scores of fans who crave her distinctive take on a Latin American delicacy
by Bill Donahue

Kendall Bajek’s empanadas have become something of a local treasure on her home turf of Bucks County. Considering her plans to grow her fledgling brand, Empanada Mama, she could soon have legions of new fans far beyond the reach of her small storefront in Doylestown.

Like many success stories, Bajek’s almost wasn’t. Her rags-to-riches tale is one of modest beginnings, of wanderlust, of serendipity.

After studying business and the arts at the University of Miami, she indulged her need to wander by traveling to destinations in Europe and South America. In Argentina, she taught English to locals, and she quickly “fell in love” with the country’s culture, its people and, of course, its food. Here, she learned how to make a proper empanada from the wives of friends. Upon returning to the United States, she perfected her craft and began developing distinctive recipes beyond the scope of what one might find in a traditional Argentinean empanada.

For those unfamiliar with the empanada, consider it a pastry that has been filled with meat, vegetables or fruit, and then baked or fried. Bajek’s distinctive empanadas might include savory fillings such as Korean beef, Buffalo chicken and Mediterranean eggplant, while sweet varieties might include banana Nutella and sweet caramel or guava and sweet cheese.

“In my downtime I was always cooking, making empanadas as a ‘thank you’ for some vendors of a previous job,” says Bajek, 26, who grew up in Buckingham. “Everybody liked them. So I made a Facebook page. People would contact me and say, ‘We’re looking to do lunch and wanted to have your empanadas. Can we drop by the apartment and pick them up?’

“I was not setting out to open a restaurant,” she continues. “At the time I was looking to get out of the restaurant business; I started out doing regional management for other restaurants, but I wanted to explore something in marketing with my degree. I had wanted to get a job in New York and get some entrepreneurial experience. It eventually came down to me realizing I already had a legitimate business I could roll with. When it took off, I said, ‘Let’s see where it takes me.’”

Bajek started her venture in April 2014. Within a month, the sheer volume of empanada orders convinced her she needed the facilities of “a legit commercial kitchen,” she says. She contacted the owner of Andre’s Wine and Cheese Shop in Doylestown’s Main Street Marketplace, who agreed to let her use his convection oven. Ultimately, though, her business proved so robust that both agreed she needed her own facility. By November 2014, she had her own storefront a stone’s throw from Doylestown’s main drag.

“It was always my dream to do something on a larger scale, but everything happens for a reason,” she says. “I’m glad I first started doing this with pretty much no money, because I don’t know if I would have been quite as successful; by doing only one thing—the empanadas—and doing them perfectly, I was able to hyper-focus.”

Although the empanada varieties might change, Bajek doesn’t intend to expand the menu beyond the core items—namely, empanadas and salads. Much of her business comes from in and around Doylestown proper, including a good deal of takeout traffic from walk-ins who come in for individual “lunch boxes,” with each lunch box containing three empanadas and one homemade dipping sauce. Most customers, however, call ahead to have Bajek’s team fulfill larger orders—five dozen, in at least one case—for parties, social events and corporate lunches.

“I’m still trying to figure out what happens next,” she adds. “There’s the good possibility of opening the second store; I’ve been looking at Newtown. After that, maybe we’ll graduate to Philly.”

Empanada Mama
21 Donaldson Street, Doylestown
215-230-3330 | yoemama.com  

Photograph by Allure West Studios