Crisp on the outside and fluffy on the inside is exactly how a corn patty “arepa” looks like. To give you a better picture, imagine a Mexican corn tortilla but thicker and of course, tastier. Arepas were originated a hundred years ago, contributing to the diet of various indigenous tribes across Venezuela and Colombia. They have now become a dish so popular that any socio-economic group eats them. And just like any sandwich, fillings vary and there are no rules. Colombian entrepreneurs Angela “Nena” Sierra and Viviana Lewis took this statement quite literal and changed the arepa game since day one!
Viviana had been in the food industry way before Angela decided to join her. Angela was working as a film producer in Bogota, Colombia where she flew back and forth for clients between Bogota and NYC. Wanting to take the next step, Angela moved to NYC in 2000 to begin a degree in film production. She involved herself in audiovisual production companies and in local theater. But after her experience in NYC, Angela decided to move back to Colombia and start working in television. Everything was going according to plans until she was badly injured. An elevator had not received maintenance in years and when Angela stepped inside, she slipped through a hole five floors down. “It was a miracle I was alive. It is a blessing I am able to walk right now”.
After the surgery in Colombia, Angela flew to NYC for a second medical procedure in her leg as it was poorly performed. Fast forward to several months later, Viviana came to Angela while she was recovering and mentioned she needed help selling arepas in a fair at Greenpoint. Not surprisingly, the arepas were a huge success! Angela fell in love with the quality of the arepas and saw a huge market potential for them. As she knew the film industry was not something she wanted to continue doing, both Angela and Viviana decided to buy their first food truck in September 2011 and named it Palenque Homemade Colombian Food.
Besides a new revenue stream, the food truck gave Angela a mental recovery. Being busy all day by having to cook, clean, and move the truck from one corner to the other, Angela did not have the time to think about the pain she was experiencing in her leg. Much less in 2012 were people stepped out of Union Square Q Station for the food truck paradise to fill those hungry stomachs – it was just the perfect street food scenery. Even Daily News, New York Times and TeleMundo shared Palenque’s success in their platforms for this powerful transformation of the traditional Arepa to one with same taste, but greater nutritional value.
Just like pasta, Arepa is sometimes feared because it is a simple carb – mostly starch with little protein/fiber. But the great thing of an arepa is that it adapts to anyone’s needs – precisely Palenque’s mission. Palenque will not sell you the typical Colombian arepa made from just corn flour. These two female entrepreneurs have added a twist of healthy grains such a quinoa, hemp seeds, and flax seeds to the flour for more protein and more crunch! Now you don’t have to think twice before ordering one (or two).
This step out of the comfort zone by looking into a healthier version of an arepa led them into the road to success. Palenque has expanded from a food truck to now three brick-and-mortars (Brooklyn, Rockaway Beach and RIIS Park Beach), events such as NYC Half Marathon and catering platforms like FoodtoEat. The business is also represented at festivals such as Smorgasburg every Saturday and Sunday. In fact, right after hurricane Sandy the NYC Mayor office asked Palenque to provide arepas to those people who had suffered the catastrophe at Rockaway.
So as you can see, these two female founders have taught us several lessons worth mentioning. First, you can build a business that is different from any careers or degrees pursued before. Second, you do not have to come up with a brand new product/service in order to be successful. You just need to find the faults of an existing one and fix them. Third, to make a difference in the world you need to dream big and work your butt off. And last but not least, Palenque has become a staple in NYC because it is run by two immigrant women. These women’s backgrounds, experiences and way of thinking has made it possible for us New Yorkers to get a taste of a dish served hundreds of miles away.
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