Nearly six months ago, I interviewed Pilar Guzman Zavala, owner of Half Moon Empanadas, after she had to shut all but one of her company’s 13 locations for Argentinian style-empanadas, including the lucrative Miami International Airport sites. She and her husband and co-founder, Juan Zavala, were looking at zero sales for who really knows how many months. They had applied for a PPP loan but had not heard back from their bank at the time.
Yet as bleak as things looked back then, the Zavalas continued to pay their 11 salaried managers – “it was the right thing to do,” Pilar said. The couple were working on website improvements and a rebranding campaign for when they could open again. They were also working on ways to reach customers in the meantime with deliveries. “We are offering discounts, delivery, and smiles to everyone who comes up to our window to take home our delicious empanadas,” Pilar, who is the CEO, said at the time.
Today, I caught up with her again to hear the next chapter of her story, a story about stepping up as a leader, learning from the past and executing on a strategy to get through this unprecedented crisis. (Read my story from April here)
CHAPTER 2: ROAD TO RECOVERY
While the economy is still suffering badly amid the pandemic, these Miami small business owners have a ways to go to rebuild. But things are looking up for Half Moon. A few weeks after I interviewed her in April, Pilar was approved for a PPP loan, which gave them some breathing room.
In May, Half Moon began providing meals for seniors, through a contract with the county. The program has reduced the amount of meals as the months went by, but Half Moon is still making about 1,200 meals every other day.
“We deliver them door to door on rented refrigerated trucks,” said Pilar. “We had to learn a lot about how to do meals for seniors, from nutrition to logistics. From how to get certified in the county, and the state, to how to package meals so they don’t spill. Each of the 11 managers became in charge of a different function of the meals program. Cashiers from the closed locations became the people who packaged the meals and the delivery team. We reinvented the whole process in the kitchen.”
Today, customers can get their empanada fix — 16 flavors — at three of Half Moon’s 13 locations that are open again: Ventanita at 860 NE 79th Street in Miami; the Airport Location at D29; and the University of Miami Business School location. “We have 35 people employed today. Before COVID, when all 13 stores were open, we could be up to 100. We had a lot of temp people for the Miami Beach Convention Center.”
RELAUNCH IS A GO
Last Saturday, with much fanfare, Half Moon celebrated its “relaunch.” The relaunch included a top-to-bottom redesign of the company’s logo, website, stores and communications. Miami Mayor Francis Suarez helped cut the ribbon and there were free empanadas for the community.
The rebranding had been in the works for 14 months, but during the COVID slowdown is when most of the work happened. It is intended to help scale the business, both locally and nationally.
The local expansion entails adding technology. “We want to be a tech company making empanadas and delivering them,” Pilar said. Selling empanadas was always in the startup’s business plan since its founding 12 years ago, but the market was not ready.
“Now, we believe it is,” Pilar said. “Our product is ideal for the delivery market but also the COVID situation — a grab and go, pick up food. We created a new website, and we are focusing our marketing efforts to have people order empanadas online with our own website. We are also looking for small footprint locations in Coral Gables, Coconut Grove, Sunset, Brickell and Wynwood.”
For Half Moon’s national expansion strategy, the company developed a pre-baked frozen empanada model. The first focus will be airports, she said. “We are the number one best seller per square foot in MIA. Our numbers of sales per square foot are triple of what big national chains make in MIA, from Starbucks to Nathans to Burger King. We have a model that is scalable and is focusing on liccensing Half Moon Empanadas to airport, stadiums and university operators.”
About her family business, Pilar adds: “Our dream is to make Half Moon Empanadas a national brand, We feel strongly about Half Moon’s future, and we believe that COVID came to make us better and to advance our growth.”
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Photos provided by Half Moon Empanadas