By Nikki Delamotte
Advance Ohio Media, Cleveland
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) After perfecting their traditional empanadas, an Ohio couple tried out new twists, like pulled pork, seafood, pizza and veggie varieties. They now serve more than a dozen styles of empanadas as well as pastries at their bustling catering and take out shop.
It started with simple beef and chicken empanadas. Husband-and-wife chef duo Lyz Otero and Gerson Velasquez had just begun dabbling with the idea of their own Latin food business in 2015. As alumni of some of Cleveland’s top restaurants — both working under Zack Bruell, and Otero under Michael Symon — they were ready to tap into their roots.
“A few months after we started, we decided to go big with the empanadas,” Velasquez says. Half Moon Bakery — a name that references the shape of the Latin staple — was born.
Three years in, they’ve been building the operation through catering and a takeout shop at 3460 West 25th St., across from MetroHealths Main Campus, which they hope to have open by April. Half Moon also makes regular appearances at pop-ups, such as at Ohio City’s Forest City Shuffleboard at 4506 Lorain Ave., where they’ll be the featured vendors throughout February.
Empanadas were a treat they were raised on. Otero learned her way around the kitchen at 7 years old as the daughter of a culinary instructor in Puerto Rico. Velasquez grew up in Guatemala, where his mother worked in catering.
After perfecting their traditional empanadas, they tried out new twists, like pulled pork, seafood, pizza and veggie varieties.
They now serve more than a dozen styles of empanadas as well as pastries. Their Argentinian empanada comes open-stuffed with ground beef, dry cabbage slaw, fresh tomato and garlic aioli sauce. A gluten-free Columbiana empanada is built with chicken, potatoes and fresh cilantro.
When it comes to dreaming up new empanada styles, Otero says she’s inspired by everything she eats. That goes for savory, like a vegan Asian-inspired empanada with sauteed vegetables and soy ginger sesame glaze, and sweet, like Dulce de leche empanada bites topped with vanilla ice cream and drizzled with chocolate.
“I might have tacos and think, ‘why not make it an empanada also?'” she says. “You take the food you try and just make it your own.”
But their biggest undertaking yet is their takeout bakery. Otero and Velasquez are completely renovating their space with the help of a $50,000 loan through an Economic and Community Development Institute (ECDI), part of a program geared toward women- and minority-owned businesses.
Along with their empanadas and baked goods, they’ll have soups, salads and rotating lunch specials. At pop-up events, they’ve already previewed their sandwiches, like a Cuban and a take on Puerto Rico’s Tripleta sandwich with salami, Spanish mortadella and pastrami.
“People kept asking for food, and they started saying you should get your own place,” Otero says. “That was something we were always thinking about for the future.”
When it opens, the takeout shop will be a culmination of the techniques they learned in their youth and their experience in Cleveland kitchens.
“My cooking style is not only Italian, I can do some French, some Chinese,” Velasquez says. “That’s why we’re trying to mix and combine. We’re not just going to be a regular bakery.”
Their sweets will include different varieties of flan, plus chocolate mousse, tiramisu, pastries and cakes made with fresh fruit. It was Otero’s time working at local shop A Cookie and A Cupcake that inspired her to step out of her comfort zone.
“What I learned from my mom was a very homemade cake style,” she recalls. “Working there, I learned more designing. We don’t want to stay a tiny bakery. We want to fuse a little bit of all different cultures.”
The path to a brick-and-mortar place of their own been a long process — one that came with roadblocks and red tape as they’ve discovered as first-time entrepreneurs — but everything is finally falling into place.