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Empanada Guy In The News

Empanada Guy brings new food truck to Brick

Asbury Park Press - April 28, 2016

If you have ever been to a New Jersey food truck festival, chances are you have spotted the gleaming red trucks of the Empanada Guy.

They are hard to miss - big and shiny, with flames across the bottom and the likeness of Carlos Serrano smiling down at customers, many of whom will happily wait an hour for a taste of his signature empanadas.

Serrano, a Newark native who now lives in Freehold, has a restaurant in the borough and seven food trucks in the northern part of the state. He is preparing to open his eighth in mid-February in Brick, most likely outside Ocean Ice Palace on Chambers Bridge Road.

He is successful - very, by his own admission - and his road to success started 14 years ago, with a leap of faith.

Empanada evolution

"I kind of fell into this," said Serrano, whose journey to food truck fame began when a former boss tasted a leftover homemade empanada he brought for lunch.

That was in Bergen County: "They don't have that stuff up there," Serrano said. "He said, 'Carlos, this is delicious.' He came back to the office an hour later and said, 'You know what? I don't know anything about this, but knowing your attitude, (you are) so driven, if you ever sell these ... you'd be rich."

That drive, Serrano said, comes in part from his grandmother - who he calls Mama. Carlos, who had a "very, very dysfunctional life" early on, lived with her in Puerto Rico for some time when he was a teenager.

"She was amazing in the kitchen. She did everything from scratch," he said. "I think what my grandmother did was she taught me stability. She taught me work ethic. She taught me to get up early, do your job, stop complaining, do the right thing."

When his boss suggested he sell his empanadas, Serrano could not - at first - see a future in doing so.

"It's not like I woke up one day and said I'm going to be Empanada Guy," he said. "I said (to his boss), 'Are you crazy? Do you know how difficult it is? How am I going to make a living do this?"

But then he started thinking - and got cooking. About a month later, he began selling his empanadas to a local business.

"After I got my first deli to buy from me, a little liquor store, it changed my life," Serrano said. "He started buying 200 a week. I thought, if he buys 200 a week, how come I can't get another account? There's no difference.

"It evolved and evolved, and within a year of that conversation, I walked out of that job," he said.

From the garage to the road

At the beginning, Serrano cooked in the converted garage of his Hillside home, sometimes staying up until the early-morning hours to finish orders.

"I started selling to restaurants," he said, adding that he would load his two young daughters and his empanadas into the family's van and visit potential customers, from fine-dining restaurants to small pizzerias. "I would sit down with the owner and say this is who I am, this is what I do. By the seventh year, I had about 100 restaurants."

In late 2011, Serrano got the urge to start a food truck.

"I was doing festivals with three tables, a tent, a turkey fryer," he said. "I realized two things: A lot of people will come and stand on my line, and to my left and right were food trucks. I said to myself, I'm gonna get a food truck."

So, he did. By June 1, 2012, he had a custom-built trailer.

"That was the day. That's when my life literally changed," he said. "That was the next level."

Between then and now, he added six more food trucks - and partners to run them - to the fleet, plus the newest one planned for Brick. He moved his family to Freehold about ten years ago, then opened the restaurant in 2014. He appeared on a few television shows, including Food Network's "Beat Bobby Flay," and continues to turn down opportunities for many others.

"I have employees that I have more of a commitment to than I do to myself," he said. "When you have people working for you, and they've got families, projects like that would have put a strain on my business and cut a lot of business. I would have had to let people go."

The food

If you are lucky enough to get close to an Empanada Guy truck during a festival, or if you visit one of his permanent locations, you will find 11 kinds of empanadas. They range in price from $3 to $7 and are filled with ground beef, shredded chicken, Mexican chorizo and potatoes, pulled pork and mojo (a marinade of garlic, lemon and olive oil), crab meat and peppers, mixed vegetables with curry and ginger, ham and cheese, three cheese, and lobster, plus two sweet varieties, guava and cheese, and apples with cinnamon.

Serrano also sells a Cuban sandwich stuffed with roasted pork, ham, Swiss cheese, mustard and pickles, and side dishes of beans - white, black or red - fried plantains, corn tamales, fried yuca, and mashed potato balls filled with pork and beef.

"I was always in the kitchen, experimenting all by myself," he said of how he learned to cook. "I watched the Food Network, and my mom was pretty good in the kitchen also. I learned from everybody."

Serrano has plans for additional food trucks, possibly two more by June. And, in a move that will bring him back to where it all began, he is transferring the majority of his production from a facility in Freehold to Moonachie, Bergen County. He plans to eventually franchise Empanada Guy across state lines, and the USDA-monitored facility up north will pave the way.

It also will allow Serrano's empanadas to - he hopes - make their way onto supermarket shelves.

More than empanadas

Outside the kitchen, Serrano founded a consulting company, Kitchen on Wheels, through which he teaches hopeful business owners how to start their own food trucks.

He also donates his time to local schools, where he pulls up with his shiny red truck, hands out empanadas, shares the story of his rough upbringing and hopes he makes an impact.

"My message when I speak with the kids, it's not about food. It's about food for the mind," he said. "A lot of these kids are being raised with one parent or no parents at home, a lot like what happened to me. A lot of them are abused. My goal is to let them know that they're not alone, and that you don't have to be a product of your society.

"It's more than just empanadas," Serrano said, echoing the sentiment printed across his trucks: Chase your dream, not your problems. "It's about being inspired to do more."

For more information about Empanada Guy, call 888-623-7765, ext. 4, or visit www.empanadaguy.com.

WHERE TO FIND EMPANADA GUY:

  • Restaurant: 568 Park Ave. in Freehold; 732-333-0082.
  • 835 Port Reading Ave. in Port Reading: 888-625-7765, ext. 1.
  • 426 Lincoln Highway in Iselin: 888-625-7765, ext. 1.
  • 60 Route 516 in Old Bridge; 888-623-7765, ext. 2.
  • 570 Old Bridge Turnpike in South River, 888-623-7765, ext. 2.
  • Liberty Gas Station: 1799 Route 10 East in Morris Plains: 888-623-7765, ext. 3.
  • Plus two other trucks at various locations.