The story of Makus Empanadas (pronounced similar to “Make us empanadas”) starts with childhood friends from Argentina going into business in Durham. Considering the comfort food aspect of empanadas in Argentina, that history makes perfect sense.
“Empanadas are the perfect excuse to get together with friends,” said Hernan Moyano, who co-owns the restaurant with Santiago Moyano and their childhood friend Ricky Yofre. “If you’ve had a bad day and you want to go talk to someone, what you do is you call and you say, ‘Hey, I’m stopping by,’ but you pick up some empanadas and bring them there.”
“With wine,” Santiago added.
Photos of Hernan, Santiago and Yofre playing in Buenos Aires as children cover the walls of Makus Empanadas. Hernan was in Chicago for the Chicago Marathon when he saw on Facebook that Ricky was in town, too. He reached out to him, and the two friends reconnected.
The empanadas themselves are a staple of their home and childhood. Makus Empanadas has filled a niche in Durham and the surrounding area by offering a food that may be unfamiliar to some North Carolinians in the form of these small pockets of dough filled with variations of meat, cheese and vegetables.
“In Argentina they are the most popular food there,” said Santiago. “You have plenty of empanada restaurants all over Buenos Aires and different provinces. Every province claims to have their own empanada or the best empanada. We do the traditional typical Buenos Aires empanada.”
For those who have never tried, or even heard of, empanadas, Hernan used a uniquely American meal as an example for comparison.
“One way to describe [empanadas] that is really painful and hurtful, and it hurts tremendously,” Hernan joked, “is you can compare it with a Hot Pocket. This would be the first class of a hot pocket. It’s whatever filling you want, wrapped in dough and baked.”
Makus Empanadas started as a catering business, renting out a kitchen in The Cookery in Durham.
“We also catered weddings, baby showers, birthday parties, anything. But always with the idea to open the restaurant,” said Hernan. “We started doing some testing, we tried the recipes, the basics … Most of the recipes come from our grandparents. After that, a few of the things we added through experimenting a little bit.”
Hernan, Santiago and Ricky found success in their business through tenacity and devotion to creating delicious food. Ricky and Santiago even returned to Argentina for training for “maestro empanadero” training.
In 2015, they were still working out of The Cookery and decided to submit paperwork that would permit them to serve empanadas at the Duke Farmers Market.
“So I received a letter with the rejection, I said ‘No way,’” Hernan said. “I Googled and found the person who was in charge, we called her, I said ‘Listen. You have to come try our empanadas or I will bug you for the next three months and call you every day until you come try our empanadas.’”
Eventually, she did try their empanadas one Wednesday. By that Friday, Makus had a spot at the Duke Farmers Market.
After getting their foot in the door at the Duke Farmers Market, more opportunities arose for the three friends and their empanadas. Once they moved from The Cookery and opened their own restaurant, they started serving food at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park as well.
At one point, a woman who had tried their empanadas during their catering days brought her husband to the Durham Bulls Athletic Park so he could try them too. Her husband worked for Aramark, a food provider for UNC Chapel Hill. He put Hernan, Santiago and Ricky in contact with UNC, and they began serving empanadas at football games. After they found success there, Hernan said, they started serving food at UNC’s basketball games as well.
Though dedication helped earn a spot in those venues and positive feedback from customers helped them become popular, they are still working to make their main dish more well-known in this part of the world.
“I think that the most important part is to let people know that you’re here, and that you’re selling empanadas,” Santiago said. “Because once you try them, I mean, there’s nothing not to like.”