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Meet New Westminster’s Empanada Gal

Carmen Isabel Pepio learnt to cook empanadas when she was a nine-year-old girl in Guatemala; now, at 57, she runs a successful business baking the crescent-shaped pastries in New West

On a bright Thursday afternoon, the New West Farmers Market teemed with people filling their totes with fresh vegetables, handmade soaps, and Carmen Isabel Pepio’s empanadas. Her palm-sized snack, that’s essentially a savoury or sweet filling wrapped snugly in a dough sheet, has earned a loyal fan following in New West since its founding in 2021.

At the stall, Pepio stood behind a table stocked with boxes that included empanadas with chicken filling (with mushrooms, peppers, onions and cilantro) — her best-selling one — besides pastor (chorizo, pineapple and cheese), and vegetable and feta (a mix of spinach, leek, mixed peppers and corn) filling, among others. 

It was just a few minutes past 3 p.m. then. By 7 p.m., she would sell as many as 500 baked and frozen empanadas.

Though Pepio works out of a store on 20th Street, most of her business is through sales at farmers markets. Besides the New West market, she frequents seven others, including White Rock, North Vancouver and Southlands Tsawwassen. 

In the days leading up to these events, Pepio has a tight schedule, for, she and her two other team members have to prep/bake more than 1,000 empanadas per day to meet the demand.

“It’s a lot of work,” said Pepio, with a smile. She starts her day at 7 a.m., responding to emails and online orders. Though the store timings are 11 a,m, to 6 p,m,, Pepio gets home by 8 p,m.

The next day, she gladly repeats the routine. 

How was Empanada Gal founded?

“I've always loved to cook… And I always like to do something different. I don't follow recipes from a book or follow others’ recipes. I like to make my own recipes,” she said. 

Pepio learnt cooking from her mom, and from her friend’s mom who was a baker, while in Guatemala. She ran her own catering business, baking and selling cakes, there. 

She moved to Canada in 2004 and worked as a kitchen manager in a few restaurants and cafes in Vancouver until 2021, when she finally decided to start her venture Empanada Gal.

Why not go back to baking cakes though? “There’s too much competition; with empanadas, not so much,” she said.

Though it’s been less than a year, Pepio’s empanadas have evolved significantly. She had launched her business selling sweet empanadas, inspired by the traditional Easter sweet cream empanadas she used to have back in Guatemala. 

But customers in New West weren’t too excited about the sugar content in the pastries, pushing Pepio to slowly transition to making savoury ones. Now she sells a mix of both. The sweet ones include those with pineapple, and raspberry cream fillings, among others.

Pepio’s passion for empanadas is rooted in her upbringing in Guatemala, but unfortunately, she hasn’t been able to fly back home and have her family and friends taste her recipes, due to COVID. “Hopefully I can, by the end of this year,” she said. 

Until then, though, she'll be at the New West Farmers Market in Tipperary Park every Thursday (till Nov. 3, 2022) at the stall that reads ‘Empanada Gal’.

Visit Empanada Gal website to order, or check out the store on 800 20th St.