Empanada Mama & The Pie Man. A small storefront in Lakeview East run by two guys who opened their doors six months into a Global Pandemic.
Where does that type of courage come from? Chasing a dream regardless of the current circumstance.
On Facebook, the two describe their mission like this:
We're just two guys (Oreste from New York, Deon from Cape Town, South Africa) trying to take over the world with our baked goodness! We make the most delicious empanadas and pies daily, using only the freshest ingredients sourced from local purveyors.
Oreste is an experienced small business owner with experience running a jewelry store and a popcorn shop prior to their move to Chicago. Deon, his husband, had a much different background. He worked as an HR executive in organizational structure. The two moved here in January, took a month off. Deon immediately loved Chicago saying it was a lot like Cape Town. Their French bulldog loved the snow, loved the winter. Their plan was always to open up the restaurant but 2020 had different plans.
Through the spring and summer, Deon and Oreste monitored the news and the different shutdown stages. Eventually they decided they couldn't keep waiting.
"We had absolutely no choice," Deon said. "We couldn't just stay at home."
The two found a vacant storefront at 2933 N. Broadway, what used to be a little Mexican restaurant. The old restaurant had seating for maybe 2 or 3 people, mostly a takeout place. Construction was under way and, in a pretty fast turnaround, they opened their doors at the beginning of September.
Deon and Oreste discovered when you open a spot on Broadway, your earliest supporters are the other restaurants.
"Our first customers were the brothers who own The Crepe Shop across the street," Deon said. "All the restaurants are supportive, not competing with each other. Foot traffic down Broadway is good for all of us."
One of their most memorable first customers was a woman from Argentina. She was quietly evaluating where they stacked up compared to other great Lakeview empanada spots like 5411 Empanadas or El Mercado up by Tango Sur.
"She came in and ordered one of our Argentinian beef empanadas," Deon said. "Left, then came back and ordered 20. 'This is so authentic,' she said."
Empanada Mama & The Pie Man was able to participate in the Lakeview East outdoor dining where for a couple of weekends the city shutdown the stretch of Broadway from Surf to Belmont and setup tables and chairs out on the street.
Their bestselling empanada is the spinach, cheese, and apricot. Some of my favorites are the spiced pumpkin, curried chicken, and the chorizo, jalapeño, and cheese. Personally, I think their pies are even better. I'm a big fan of the steak & Guinness and the South African curried beef pie. These are the ultimate comfort foods that will carry us through the cold Chicago winter.
They also sell dessert pies. Deon's been surprised how well the online sales have taken off for things like whole pumpkin or apple pies. I assume this must be the new shelter-at-home trend: Netflix and eat-an-entire-pie.
In some respects, the current environment actually works for their restaurant. Since they don't rely on indoor seating, doing primarily carryout, they've been busy right from the start. And they're not getting sick of each other either, despite the close quarters.
"We work together all day, live together," Deon said. "It works for us."
Opening their doors six months into a Global Pandemic. Even before 2020, local restaurants have always been this shining example of how to go after dreams and beat the odds. Facing tough statistics is nothing new. 60% of restaurants fail in their first year. 80% don't make it past year five. The challenge of running a restaurant made even harder in a year like this.
That's why I've seen these local spots as an inspiration for getting through this hard time. They all have this healthy respect of how hard the journey will be, yet a deeper belief that they can succeed. An attitude that's inspiring to follow for beating COVID as a whole.
And I think Empanada Mama and the Pie Man is gonna beat the odds.
So will we.
Over the last several months, I've been using the Medium Rare blog in a different format, featuring local restaurants and businesses around Chicago. These can also drift into a little bit of philosophy and stories from my own life + a historical deep dive like this one a couple weeks ago on the history of milk. To catch up on some of the previous posts and read about great local spots, here they are below:
- Chicago, Argentina (Part 1)
- Chicago, Argentina (Kierkegaard intermission)
- Chicago, Argentina (Part 2: The Family Behind Tango Sur)
- Chicago, Argentina (Kierkegaard Finale)
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