Belen Rodriguez's career plan was thrown into disarray by the coronavirus pandemic.
She was furloughed in March 2020 from her part-time job as a Spanish language translator at HCMC in Minneapolis.
Meanwhile, her growing catering business was falling apart as in-person events were canceled or postponed.
"It was really scary," she said.
Rodriguez's husband suggested selling some of her empanadas in a grocery store. By summer, Rodriguez, who moved to Minnesota from her native Argentina in 2012, was testing the concept by selling frozen empanadas at a farmers market.
"And people loved them," she said.
Seward Community Co-op, which has three locations in the Twin Cities, was the first to contract with Rodriguez to sell her Quebracho frozen empanadas. Within months, the number of retailers grew.
Sales for Rodriguez's frozen empanadas quadrupled during the remainder of 2020, and sales this year have been steady, she said. To keep pace with demand for her food products, Rodriguez added two distribution partners.
Now, Quebracho products can now be found in 50 stores in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois, though mostly in the Twin Cities. Earlier this month, she landed her biggest retail partner in Kowalski's Markets, which will sell the empanadas in its 11 locations.
Rodriguez and her small team of employees hand make and package Quebracho empanadas inside the Minnesota Foodcrafters commercial kitchen in St. Paul. The team was previously producing more than 120 dozen empanadas a week there, but after securing the Kowaliski's contract, the order sizes have doubled, Rodriguez said.
The empanada recipe is courtesy of Rodriguez's grandmother. On the back of each package is a photo of the two of them, along with a short note to customers.
"I get to share who I am," Rodriguez said. "I feel connected to my family."
Rodriguez is currently participating in the Lunar Startups Accelerator, a six-month Twin Cities program focused on providing entrepreneurs who identify as Black, Indigenous, a person of color, LGBTQ, female or non-binary, with a range of benefits, including pro bono legal services. The program is helping Rodriguez develop and implement strategies to expand Quebracho.
The idea to operate a food business started in 2015. Rodriguez began cooking more Argentinian foods to heal her homesickness, and she decided to expand beyond cooking those dishes for friends and her in-laws. She started cooking at a bakery on the weekends, and then cooking part time at restaurants.
By 2016, she wanted to go into business for herself.
"I knew I wanted something of my own," she said. "I needed something that connected me to what I was missing."
Rodriguez spent 2017 building Quebracho Charcuterie & Pies, a pop-up and catering company. With the help of the Northside Economic Opportunity Network, she officially launched the company in 2018 and entered the market by selling freshly made empanadas at the Linden Hills Farmers Market.
In Argentina, Rodriguez worked as a scientific translator, specializing in pharmaceutical clinical trials. She invested 13 years into a career as an interpreter and translator, but reduced her work hours once in Minnesota to develop her cooking career.
Looking back, she's glad she was furloughed last March. It allowed her to embark on a new journey as an full-time business owner.
"It was the best thing to happen to me," she said.