Half Moon Empanadas at Jackson Memorial Hospital, Nicklaus Children's Hospital
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Half Moon Empanadas: A savory success story baked with equal parts passion, perseverance, and vision

Even some of Pilar Guzman’s mentors advised her not to expand her Miami small business nationally, yet she persisted. Today, the tasty creations of this entrepreneur’s Half Moon Empanadas can be savored in locations across the US, particularly in airports, with more expansion on the runway.

With trial and error and incredible perseverance, Guzman, a Mexican-born mother of two with a master’s degree in finance from Georgetown University, found the formula for success on the ground in Miami, but her goal is to see the popularity of her company’s artisanal empanadas soar in communities around the country. She believes in time Half Moon Empanadas can become a mainstream national brand, and her beloved made-from-scratch empanadas will be widely accessible in this country like the American burger.

To be sure, it hasn’t been an easy journey. Early on Half Moon Empanadas, founded in 2008 at the height of the financial crisis, almost went out of business. Guzman’s experience with a South Beach location that failed was a tough lesson learned about the importance of managing cash flow. Then more recently, when the pandemic hit, Guzman had to shut all but one of her company’s 13 locations in Miami, including the lucrative Miami International Airport sites. Yet as bleak as the outlook seemed back then, she and her husband and business partner, Juan Zavala, were determined to emerge from the pandemic and they continued to pay their 11 salaried managers because “it was the right thing to do.”

That double blow did not knock this business out, and in the last two years, Guzman has been putting systems and processes in place, growing the team very strategically, and developing a strategy for massive expansion. And since then, “we’ve been very successfully growing in airports,” Guzman says.

While airport locations are not the only way the company is expanding, the company’s airport strategy is a key driver. In some airports they are expanding by licensing locations from big operators; in others, they build and run them in house.

Last May, Half Moon opened in the massive Denver airport, and it was one that they built, financed and operate themselves. “That was a big challenge because it’s the fourth largest airport in the country. The whole endeavor of building a store across the country … gave us a lot of learning, from the operational side and from the distribution side.”

Guzman experienced a lot of pushback from the industry, hearing things like Halfmoon’s financial success was due to Miami’s Latino population. “I said no, we’re going to prove everybody wrong.”

And she did: “We are today the best-selling kiosk in the Denver airport.”

Half Moon also last year opened two locations in Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International, and set up shop in airports in Palm Springs, California, Minneapolis and Phoenix through licensing deals. “There’s a very, very high barrier to get into and grow in airports for smaller operators,” she explains. Pilar shared those learnings in December 2023 as part of a panel discussion with Florida SBDC at FIU Regional Director Brian Van Hook on supplier diversity success organized by Santander Bank at the ICIC Conference. Guzman told attendees that Half Moon’s success was “a team effort that’s gotten us where we are today.”

To be sure, Half Moon Empanadas is just getting started. This year, Half Moon is adding a fourth location at Miami International Airport, in the pre-security area. On the runway are deals for Washington DC, Austin, Texas, Raleigh, Rhode Island, Chicago and Nashville. “At the end of 2024, we’ll be in 13 airports and 19 locations [within them].”

Half Moon Empanadas is also growing in universities, hospitals and convention centers. Locally, Half Moon can be found in Jackson Memorial Hospital, Nicklaus Children’s Hospital, the Miami Beach Convention Center, and in three locations each at the University of Miami and Florida International University. The company operates two commercial kitchens, each with a ventanita of course, in Miami’s MiMo and Little Haiti neighborhoods, and corporate offices in the metro area.

Underlying that expansion is a big focus on growing the team and putting systems and processes into place. “It’s been really hard to be able to keep up with the growth,” Guzman says, “and I don’t have the recipe for hiring people.”

But perhaps she does. Guzman recently recruited some talent from the outside to add a layer of expertise in corporate processes in both finance and operations but 80% of her operations team are longtime employees. She has always been a believer in promoting from within and is proud to say her staff includes many employees who have risen through the ranks and that the company is about 75% women and 95% Latinos. “Preserving the DNA of the company is why I do what I do.”

“I love our empanadas, obviously. They’re the best in the market and I know we’re a leader in the category — there is no other concept in the US that has the growth and the locations that we that we have,” says Guzman. But where she gets her perseverance is from the energy that’s within. “Why we do this is the people and I think that our people drive the brand, drive the numbers, and drive the whole entire business. You believe in your people, and you make them see what they’re good at,” she says.

When hiring, she tries to assess if the person is a good match for the DNA of Half Moon Empanadas. “We are resilient. We’re fighters. We’re very creative. We are dreamers. We do dream to be the new food category for empanadas in the US, and my people believe that. So if you don’t have that sort of mentality of believing in dreams and working really hard at the same time, you can’t work for us because you’re going to think we’re crazy.”

With the growth, the importance of focusing employees on one key task rather than a lot of things at the same time was a learning for Guzman, and so was increasing benefits to stay competitive with the market. Another big learning is that a strong company culture reaps benefits. “I try to be very, very diligent to take care of the culture, and for the people that don’t belong to the culture, the whole environment is kicking those people out when we don’t hire well, when they don’t align with who we are.”

In addition to a push-push-push mentality, a leader needs to pause and observe, Guzman says. “I realized the importance of silent time to think. It’s important to observe things from the top and say OK, so if we run with this, what are the other factors that can affect that decision? I don’t think that you ever stop learning when you’re an entrepreneur.”

This year Guzman’s focus is on making the best numbers possible and making sure the right team and processes are in place to continue Half Moon Empanadas’ rapid growth.

In the future, she’d like to give back by ramping up her investing in other women-led businesses.


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