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Empanada Guy In The News

Latino-run food trucks pave their way across the U.S.

USA TODAY Hispanic Living - September 8, 2014

Food trucks are now an estimated $1 billion industry in the U.S., with almost one in four vendors specializing in Latino cuisine. In honor of National Hispanic Heritage Month, we rounded up three Latino-owned and operated mobile vendors who share why their passion for what they do keeps them on the road.

Empanada Guy

Growing up in a troubled home in New Jersey, Carlos Serrano found tranquility with his abuelita (maternal grandmother) in the kitchen, where empanadas, seafood paellas and Puerto Rican specialties like pastellitos and sofrito were a welcome show of domesticity. "I had a lot of negative stuff in my life, but my greatest memories are of food," and of leaning on his grandmother for love and much-needed discipline. "She was like a wolverine," Serrano recalls, laughing. "She used to break chickens' necks with her bare hands."

The tough abuelita owned her own restaurant in Newark and provided stability for young Serrano, whose parents were rarely home. His grandmother's old-school work ethic and passion propelled him to attend college on a baseball scholarship and eventually find work in the New Jersey social service system. "Growing up the way I did, I had a big desire to help people," he says.

After 10 years on the job, Serrano began to burn out. And then, one day he brought homemade beef empanadas to work and shared them. "One guy totally freaked out," says Serrano. "He told me, 'If you sell these in white neighborhoods, you'd be rich.'"

Serrano laughed it off, but a seed was planted. He says he did wonder if he could "pull this off." With his wife's support, he began making empanadas on the side and in two weeks had his first account: a local deli. "He ordered $200 worth; I thought I was rich. I used to sell them for $1 each."

He quit his state job and soon began working the festival circuit as J&J Empanadas, named after his daughters. "I would wear red Crocs and a red bandana. People began to recognize me. They'd yell, 'Yo, Empanada Guy.' "When his lines grew longer than the popular sausage and pizza trucks, Serrano used investments from a college friend and a loyal fan to get his own customized food truck branded with his de facto moniker. "Everything changed," Serrano says with a smile.

In the two and half years since launching his signature red truck, Empanada Guy has franchised two other trucks and opened a restaurant in Freehold, N.J., that offers seven types of empanada, including lobster and apple cinnamon. The jovial Serrano has appeared on the Food Network's Throw Down with Bobby Flay, Lifetime's Supermarket Superstars and currently has his own YouTube show, Food Truck Heroes. He has plans to bring his Empanada Guy truck to other states and develop a line of frozen turnovers.

Serrano is a now a man on a mission. "I'm ready to take over," he says.

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