Hamilton has a hot new food truck: it’s Hotpanada, serving up a surprising variety of empanadas with an international flair.
Andrea and Joshua Pantoja are the married couple behind Hotpanada, which can currently be found Friday and Saturday afternoons parked in the old Kmart lot on Whitehorse Avenue. The long-time Hamilton residents have found a way to blend their skills to create a winning business formula.
“We have a saying in our marriage,” Joshua says. “’I make it look good, and she makes it taste good.’ She is the flavor behind Hotpanada. My wife is the reason why everything tastes the way it tastes. I like making it look presentable. I’m the one that likes to do the advertisements and the designs.”
Empanadas are a form of savory turnover popular throughout Latin America. Dough is stuffed with a filling like beef, chicken or vegetables, then sealed up and deep fried.
Hotpanada has traditional empanadas on its menu, like the Beefenada, the Chickenada and the Bean & Cheeseanada. But that’s not all.
The Pantojas take things a step further by infusing the flavors of other cuisines into their menu. The Samosanada introduces some Pakistani flavor to the mix while the Bisonada includes some Middle Eastern flair. The Sausage & Peppernada offers an Italian twist on the empanada, the Spinach Fetanada brings the Greek, while the Eggrollanada, well — you get the idea.
Andrea loved to cook, and Joshua wanted to put his marketing training to good use in a business of his own.
They also sell bacalaítos (fried cod fritters) as well as sweet treats like flan, churros and fruit-filled puff pastries. They have relied mostly on social media to drive traffic so far — that and word of mouth.
“This started taking off like a rocket in April when we started,” Joshua says. “Weeks after we started the truck there (in the Kmart lot), we knew that this was going to take off. Everyone was so nice, giving us honest, constructive feedback. Our Facebook following is really to be commended because they’ve been so supportive.”
* * *
Joshua and Andrea were employed full time in other fields when they began dreaming about starting up a food truck.
Joshua, who went to Trenton Central High School and studied graphic design at Mercer County Community College, was working in parts logistics. Andrea (nee Sanchez), who graduated from Nottingham High School, had her own cleaning business.
But they knew that they wanted to get into the food truck industry. Andrea loved to cook, and Joshua wanted to put his graphic design and marketing training to good use in a business of his own.
First came the truck. They purchased it used from a former Mac Tools driver who had received it as a retirement gift from the company and didn’t know what to do with it. Renovating the truck became a shared labor of love.
“Basically we had to tear it down to its bones and build it back up,” Joshua says. “I have a little bit of a building background and I told her, you know, let’s little by little save up. Any time we had a little additional savings, we would put it into the truck.”
Joshua did whatever work he could do himself. When the time came, he hired professionals to do electrical work and install a fire-suppression system. It took five years to get the truck service ready.
“Every time there was a holiday, it was what we worked on,” he says. “Over the years, people would say, ‘How’s the truck coming along?’ The community was so supportive, because they knew the story.”
In 2017, when they were finally ready, the Pantojas launched their business — as Arepa Express.
“Our line was 20, 30 people just waiting for empanadas. We were like, ‘ok, we have to regroup and rebrand.’”
Arepas are a Venezuelan staple of cornmeal dough stuffed with fillings like cheese or beef, then baked or fried. Andrea grew up learning to cook Venezuelan specialties from her mother and grandmother, and arepas are what she and Joshua settled on as the marquee dish for their truck.
But Arepa Express never really took off. “It just didn’t work out for us,” Joshua admits. “It wasn’t because they weren’t good. People who had them would tell us they were good. It was more that people didn’t know what an arepa was.”
Also on the Arepa Express menu were Puerto Rico-style empanadas, a nod to Joshua’s heritage. And what they found was that the more familiar empanadas sold better than the arepas.
They kept going with Arepa Express, but eventually it became clear that something needed to change if they were to reach the level of success they wanted.
“We were at a festival one day and there was another [truck] there that sold nothing but empanadas, and their line was nil,” Joshua says. “And our line was 20, 30 people just waiting on our truck for our empanadas. It was one of those things where we were like, ‘OK, we have to regroup and rebrand.’”
So they went back to the drawing board, reimagining the business as an empanada truck. Andrea set to work developing her recipes, while Joshua focused on the brand.
“We sat at our kitchen table saying, ‘OK, what kind of empanadas should we make? Beef empanadas, let’s call it the Beefanada. OK, let’s call the chicken one Chickenada’ and from there it went to the Shrimpanada and the Samosanada and the Breakfastanada.”
Andrea once worked for a Pakistani family, where she learned a lot of Pakistani, Indian and Middle Eastern cooking techniques. “I’m combining my Venezuelan Latin roots with the Middle Eastern and Indian flavors to make a fusion of [those cuisines],” she says.
At first, the pair focused on Hotpanada as a catering business. Then the Covid-19 pandemic hit, and Andrea was unable to maintain her cleaning business because of the lockdown.
Needing the income, in April they decided to take the truck to the old Kmart lot Fridays from 11 to 4 and Saturdays from 2 to 5. Monday through Thursday they prep their ingredients in a commissary kitchen.
The response so far has been everything they had hoped for. Customers have increased 15% since April, and Andrea says every time they post that they are open on Facebook and Instagram, they get 70 to 100 sales.
“Covid-19 is really a bad situation, but businesswise it just gave us that extra push that we needed, to just take our product into the world and let the masses try it,” Joshua says. “Because of the situation we’re in, a lot of people who wouldn’t have stopped before, they see our truck now and they stop and see what it’s about.”
“The pandemic is something terrible that has happened all over the world,” Andrea adds. “But it also opened this door for us.”
And this time it’s not just the empanadas that customers love. The bacalaítos — Puerto Rican cod fritters — have been so popular they have had to prepare more of the batter each week.
Likewise the dessert puff pastries. “In the beginning I wasn’t making that many and they were selling out,” Andrea says. “You don’t find them unless you go to Newark or Elizabeth, where there are more Colombians and Cubans. So people were like fascinated with them.”
They also sell beverages, including the popular mint lemonade and pineapple ginger drink.
Mobility is of course a built-in advantage of a food truck, but Joshua says Hotpanada will stay put for now.
“We’re very much mobile, but right now we’re taking it little by little,” he says. “The township has opened these doors for us (by allowing them to operate in the lot), and we just want to be able to make this work first before we branch out.”
They have recently secured a yearly permit to operate in Princeton. “We’ve been dying to go to Princeton, but Princeton is a place where we have to make sure we approach it the right way,” Joshua says. “But we’re definitely wanting to branch out.”
Hotpanada, 1087 Whitehorse Ave., Hamilton. Web: hotpanada.com. Phone: (609) 273-1001. Catering available.