Nancy Oltman and her daughter Alexis approach culinary and business success one doughy pinch at a time.
The women began selling their handmade empanadas – Latin American turnovers – nearly three years ago as Pampeana: Home of the Baked Empanada. The business name loosely means “from the pampas,” which are the grasslands of South America.
While most of their sales involve frozen products that they market through their Web site, www.pampeanaempanadas.com, they also are selling cooked products at the Saturday Proctor Farmers Market in Tacoma.
Each of the seven flavors of empanada they create can be distinguished by the type of pastry border that seals the empanada – a rope-like twist for beef, a spiky fold for chicken, a fork-induced crimp for spinach.
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It’s all done by hand, pinch-by-pinch, in space the women rent from Kitchen-2-Kitchen, a make-ahead meal-preparation site on Sixth Avenue in Tacoma.
“It’s labor-intensive,” says Nancy. “We make every one by hand.”
Preparing each filling takes about an hour. The pair produce about 180 empanadas in three or four hours.
Alexis learned the art of empanada making from a former boyfriend, who was from Argentina.
In that country, and in much of Latin America, the empanada is ubiquitous.
The folded pastry, stuffed with meat, vegetables, cheese or fruit, came to Latin America from Spain.
The Spanish might have developed the dish based on food brought to Spain in the 8th century by North African conquerers.
“It’s the South American turnover,” says Nancy. “Every culture has one – the Cornish pasty in England, the Polish pierogi. It’s something that’s pleasing, and universal.”
The Oltman women started making Latin American turnovers for family and friends.
When they began to gather compliments, they wondered whether they could create a business selling the baked treats.
The two women put out some feelers about starting an empanada-making business – talking to friends at a bakery, for example. And they were pleasantly surprised when they received their first order.
“One day we got a call from a Chilean wine importer,” recalls Alexis. “He was having a tasting and wanted like 500 empanadas.”
“I was sort of gasping,” says Nancy, wondering how they would fill the large order. “But then I just said, ‘What fillings would you like?’ ”
From there, Pampeana took off running.
Neither Nancy nor Alexis had experience in a catering or food preparation business.
Nancy is retired from Weyerhaeuser and Alexis is a Web programmer for K2 Sports, a manufacturer of outdoor equipment, in Seattle.
“I can’t tell you how generous people have been,” says Nancy. “Restaurant owners, caterers, fellow vendors” at the market.
All have been willing to share information that has helped make Pampeana a success, she says.
The Oltmans buy their wheat dough shells, which are made in Argentina, from an importer. But they chop and assemble all their fillings from fresh ingredients.
“I spend hours peeling garlic,” says Nancy. “I sometimes look longingly at jars of peeled garlic. But if we started substituting packaged foods, it wouldn’t taste the same.”
Nancy recently returned from a trip to Argentina, where she enrolled in a cooking class and learned to make empanada dough. She says the company might consider switching to homemade empanada shells at some point. But not yet.
Customers have requested a gluten-free version of their wheat-shelled empanada, and some have even offered to help with a recipe. But Nancy says she and Alexis aren’t quite ready to take that step.
Customers also ask about vegetarian options. While some of their empanada varieties are meat-free, many contain cheese and all are finished with an external egg wash, so the food is vegetarian, but not vegan.
The egg wash turns the empanadas a golden brown when they’re baked.
Although empanadas frequently are served fried, the Oltmans bake theirs. “It’s healthier,” says Nancy. It’s also typical of the empanadas served in Argentina, she adds.
Being a mother-daughter business has turned out to be another plus for Pampeana.
“We’re pretty like-minded,” says Nancy. “The speed at which we can make decisions is amazing. We never have more than two e-mails back and forth.”
During previous years, Pampeana has sold at least 2,500 empanadas.
Selling at the Proctor Market has helped boost business this year, Nancy adds.
She says she sought out the market on the advice of Proctor businessman Bill Evans, who suggested that it would be a good place to gather feedback from customers.
So far, that’s proved to be true, says Nancy.
Meat varieties are the biggest sellers at the market. One customer suggested that individual empanadas could be heated in a toaster oven, and the tip has been popular.
The women would like to someday market their product in grocery stores, and they hope that success at the farmers market can help sell the idea.
They also are thinking about expanding to a second farmers market.
“I think it could get a lot bigger if we wanted to,” says Alexis. “The issue is how many we have the time to make, bake and serve.”
Debbie Cafazzo: 253-597-8635
where to buy
When: 9 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturdays
Where: Proctor Farmers Market, North 27th and Proctor, Tacoma; or online
Cost: $2.99 each or $26.99 for a dozen. Appetizer empanadas are $19.99 a dozen.
Carne: Ground beef cooked with onions, sweet peppers, raisins, hard-boiled egg, garlic and a blend of herbs and spices
Chicken: Chicken breast, red peppers, green and white onions, mushrooms and Swiss cheese
Spinach and cheese: Spinach, Swiss cheese, mushrooms, onions, hard-boiled egg and garlic
Corn: A mix of creamed and kernel corn, fresh tomatoes, green pepper, onion and spices
Caprese: Ripe tomatoes, fresh basil, mozzarella, onions and garlic
Apple: Apple, cinnamon and clove mix, sweetened with Argentine dulce de leche (made from sweetened milk)
Guava: Guava fruit and ricotta cheese