Latina CEO of Empanada Purveyor Offers Food And Inspiration On The Menu

Michael Butler
Miami Herald

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) For International Women’s Day, Pilar Guzman Zavala Zavala, shares what she’s learned as a Latina entrepreneur about perseverance, the importance of networking and what minority small business owners need most to succeed.


Growing up in Veracruz, Mexico, Half Moon Empanadas CEO Pilar Guzman Zavala didn’t envision owning a thriving small business. She did know she wanted to change the world, and the business she shares with her husband, Juan, gives her the platform to inspire others.

Half Moon has 20 locations, including at the University of Miami and Miami International Airport. It will be in six airports nationwide by the end of the year. From a central commissary in Miami, the firm started in 2008 makes the artisanal empanadas sold at its stores from scratch.

For International Women’s Day, Zavala, 44, an immigrant and mother of two with a master’s degree in finance from Georgetown University, discussed what she’s learned as a Latina entrepreneur about perseverance, the importance of networking and what minority small business owners need most to succeed.

Why did you enter the food service industry?
My husband is the one that started the business. He came to America from Argentina when he was eight. He always wanted to bring something to America. He was visiting Argentina and saw people were eating empanadas that were delivered. He said this would be great in America.

After meeting in 2002, we moved to Miami knowing nobody. We picked South Beach, at Washington Avenue and 13th Street and it almost took us into bankruptcy. We’re not cooks or chefs. Juan saw the opportunity 15 years before delivery via apps took off. Back then, it was a sit-in restaurant with delivery, but it was hard for us to make the numbers. We chose a bad location based on the cost of rent. We were paying $11,000 a month in rent and selling empanadas at $2 apiece when it cost us $2 to make one. It was a lot to learn. I think as entrepreneurs that’s the only way.

I joined the business managing customer service and sales. I started trying to sell to whoever would buy and went to festivals like the Ocean Drive Festival and set up a booth consisting of a table and warmer at $4 an empanada. In one day at a festival, we’d do the sales of a week at the store. I always tell this story to entrepreneurs because that was the light at the end of the tunnel.

How did getting a contract with Miami International Airport boost your business?
There were six packages of requests for proposals for minority businesses. We made empanadas in front of judges and used the last pennies we had for the $20,000 bid that was nonrefundable. If you lose, you lost that money. In the six years of business before we got the airport contract, we had two evictions and couldn’t afford our rent. The financial crisis of 2008 cut our line of credit, so we faced eviction of our home and business because we couldn’t afford the maintenance of our apartment. That’s how bad things were. That’s why issues of financing to small businesses and procurement are so close to my heart because I lived it.

In 2013, we won the bid and it took us two years to open our doors in the Miami airport.
Today, we’re the top seller per square foot in the entire Miami airport. That changed the trajectory of the company, because it allowed us to have more sales and more cash flow for better operations.
It took me about 10 banks to get the loan to finance a contract I had already won. They would not lend me the money because we didn’t have debt, so that was a bad thing and we didn’t have credit. Our numbers couldn’t sustain a $250,000 loan. I reached out to my mentor from when I worked at the Knight Foundation, chief financial officer Juan Martinez. He sent an email to three different banks and that led to us getting our loan.

How has the U.S. Airport Concessions Disadvantaged Business Enterprise Program altered your business?

The things I learned helped with why things weren’t working in my company. Before, I had one director of operations running 10 stores. What you learn is that one person can’t manage more than six people. They used military examples of managing teams in combat. I rearranged the entire organizational chart with that basic advice.

I never thought about scaling and the program is all about that. They presented ideas for that, from collaborating with someone to do that or doing it by yourself.

I’m also part of the Stanford Latino Business Action Network. This has given me friends across the U.S., including a colleague in Nashville with a seven-state distribution of Latino products. It opens up your mindset and takes you out of your business and opens up your possibilities.

What are ways minority entrepreneurs could get more support?
One way you help is showing examples of people that have done it that look like you. That’s inspiring.
Also, how do you connect small businesses to resources. When I had the chance to speak to President Joe Biden in January 2021 via social media conversation organized by the White House, I said there is one thing we should be doing in the banking industry. Just as banks have all the information on clients, when it comes to Latino and Black businesses, why don’t we do the same with lending and get that same data on why we’re not helping those businesses? Push policies to address that. When you make it factual, it’s tough being emotional. It’s a factual thing that people of color are not getting the money. Procurement is taking longer. A government contract for a minority is 30 times smaller.

How do minority business operators know what bids there are for government contracts and how to access the bid information?

I believe local government has responsibility to do workshops on the informational stuff. The challenge is getting people to know those workshops exist. Once you get the opportunity, knowing how to compete and getting financing is important. I learned by asking questions when I got rejected.

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