This month, the aroma of baked empanadas will finally be wafting out of Happy Empanada’s new restaurant space in Westover Hills. You’ve most likely seen their brightly-colored truck, painted with a smiling empanada, at Richmond breweries, festivals, and events, where they dish out hand-made empanadas, fried plantains, and other Latin side dishes several days a week.
Originally printed in RVA #32 Spring 2018, you can check out the issue HERE or pick it up around Richmond now.
Happy Empanada has been serving up empanadas to hungry Richmonders since 2012. Owner Luciana, known as “Lucy,” emigrated from Panama to the United States in 1975, bringing her cooking skills to restaurants in Oregon, California, Texas, and Virginia. The food truck business she started six years ago is expanding with a brick and mortar spot for takeout, delivery, and catering, as well as a commercial kitchen for the food truck.
“At the beginning, my mom wanted to do the truck just a couple times here and there,” said Linda, Luciana’s daughter. “It got so popular and kept getting booked and booked. This is just the evolution of it and the next step, so we can continue to do more events.”
Linda, a longtime web developer, recently quit her day job to take over Happy Empanada so her mother can retire and return to Panama.
The idea for Happy Empanada spawned on a holiday when Lucy realized she could take her recipes and love of cooking, and start her own food truck business.
“We were cooking up empanadas one day, I think it was like Thanksgiving, and she was like, ‘these are great we could sell these!’, and [she] decided to do the food truck,” Linda said. “It took us about a year to put it together. It was 100 percent a family thing, My two brothers, my aunt and my uncle, and me and my mom all worked to get the truck, paint it and [get] equipment.”
But it wouldn’t be her mother’s first culinary venture. Lucy had the benefit of years of experience in the restaurant industry from waiting tables to running other restaurants she’s owned such as Pilot’s Wharf and Bambery’s Restaurant, both in Virginia’s Northern Neck.
“She’s always cooked, and always enjoyed that,” Linda said of her mom’s passion.
Lucy went full-time with Happy Empanada in 2013, quitting her other restaurant job to keep up with the demand of running the truck several days a week. The business has been using the commercial kitchen space Kitchen Thyme to churn out the empanadas they sell.
Empanadas, which are a standard dish of Latin America, vary depending on the country, according to Linda. “Each Latin country has empanadas, but they’re all different. Whether they have a different type of dough, or they fold them different or [have] different fillings, everyone has their own way of making them,” Linda said.
Growing up, they were a staple in Linda’s home, although she said her mother has had to tweak some of her recipes for the local customer base. “These have kind of morphed,” she said. “Growing up, we would get empanadas, but they would be made with raisins and olives. But our customers didn’t like that, so some of the recipes we’ve modified. Some we’ve developed over time for this business.”
Currently, Happy Empanada offers five empanada flavors, including beef, pork chorizo, chicken with sundried tomatoes, spinach mushroom and feta, and apple guava, along with sides like rice and black beans, mango coleslaw, fried plantains, and chips and salsa.
Over time, the demand grew to the point where Happy Empanada was having to turn down gigs, so Linda said for the last year, the crew scoured Richmond for a location to expand. They finally landed on the Westover Hills area in December, when they signed the lease on their new shop.
“We’ll add more flavors of empanadas and more types of rice,” Linda said of the expanded menu that will come along with the new space. They will add arroz con gandules (rice, pigeon peas and pork), arroz con pollo, and arroz con coco (coconut rice). She also said they will add soups — specifically Sancocho, a chicken soup dish common in Panama — along with grilled meats on a stick and desserts.
With the Southside spot, Linda also said they will be able to extend the days they’re out in the truck, offer delivery, and ramp up their catering operations. “We’re going to sign up for Ubereats and GrubHub, and since we’ll have the location, we’ll be able to do more private events with our truck,” she said.
Happy Empanada’s carryout and delivery spot is now open at 1203 Westover Hills Blvd.
Top Photo By: James H. Loving Photography