A Q&A with Cristian Bejarano, whose restaurant, Maestro Empanadas, was chosen as the Most Commendable COVID-19 Precaution Game in Little Village’s 2020 Best of the CRANDIC awards.
When did you open Maestro Empanadas? Had you always hoped to own a restaurant?
We opened our store in December 2015, however we started selling empanadas at the Farmers Market in 2012 as seasonal vendors. To be honest, before moving to Iowa City in 2008, I did not imagine having a restaurant.
We started making empanadas at home because we missed the food from our country and there was not any place where to buy something similar. Since our friends liked the empanadas so much, we got the idea to start selling them in the Farmers Market. It was also an opportunity to share a piece of our culture. To open the store was quite an adventure! We have clients that come every week to the store and love to learn about Argentina.
How did the pandemic affect your business? How did you adapt?
I think the main thing that affected us was to lose all the catering and event sales and of course we were not able to participate in the Farmers Market. We had the advantage of being a takeout restaurant, so our business model works well during this time. … We’ve required customers to wear a mask since March. We also expanded our sales of frozen empanadas to the New Pioneer Co-op and to Hy-Vee Eastside so they were more accessible and a good option for people to bake at home.
You were one of the first sources for cloth masks in the area. Why did you decide to sell masks? How did customers respond?
Having masks for sale at the store was an initiative from my wife [Bianca Bejarano Carlson]. She works at the University [of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics] and knew early on how important it was to wear a mask to reduce the possibility of getting sick. As she was aware of the shortage of surgical masks and how difficult it was to get fabric masks online, she started sewing masks for friends and coworkers and then decided to have some masks available for our customers and for donations to several places. Part of the motivation was to have masks available for customers that were coming to the store without a mask and to help to educate people on the need of wearing one.
The response from our customers was great and we ended making at least 1,000 masks between donations and the ones we sold at the store.
What are your plans or hopes for the future?
It is very hard to plan right now but we hope to keep growing our business and start selling our frozen empanadas in other stores. We also hope that as a community we find a way to keep fighting this pandemic and overcome the differences that are dividing us right now. We are stronger together!