A Typical — and Atypical — Immigrant Entrepreneur

(Photo by Jon Jeter)

Inevitably, there are a few things that Ariel Barbouth must clear up for customers at his Times Square empanadas stand, Nuchas.

First of all, his empanadas are baked, not fried like the Columbian or Dominican versions of the crunchy, meat-filled hand pies. Second, as it turns out, Argentines are every bit as snobbish about empanadas as New Yorkers are about pizza.

“You just don’t buy empanadas from everybody,” Barbouth cautions.

Third, you can ask all you want but he will not, cannot, supersize his empanadas. Ever.

And fourth — most importantly — is that while his empanadas can easily fit into the palm of your hand, you should not consider them a snack or even a meal but an experience, the warmth of the dough and the taste of the meaty pulp as unexpectedly transformative as a bicycle ride on a cooing spring day, or a work of art that snatches your breath away. What Barbouth is going for is the unmistakable look — equal parts joy and bewilderment — that appeared on the faces of two friends when they visited him in Buenos Aires six years ago and took their first bites of the freshly baked empanadas he’d just fetched from a corner bistro.

“It’s kind of like Forrest Gump said, you know — when you open up a box of freshly baked empanadas,” the 40-year old Barbouth said on a sunny spring afternoon outside his bustling food stand. “It really is a box of possibilities. In Argentina we take it for granted, but when I saw the reaction on their faces in that moment, I knew I wanted to take empanadas mainstream.”

And so he has. An engineer by training, Barbouth opened Nuchas last year on Broadway Plaza between 44th and 45th Streets after beating out dozens of other vendors to win the prime midtown location. The judges in the competition, he recalled, were a panel of Times Square business executives so exacting they could have made American Idol’s judges cry. Six months in, the customers are beginning to flock to the conspicuous stained-wood stand for $3 empanadas, and Barbouth has become the face — quite literally — of the successful 21st-century émigré entrepreneur; just this month, New York’s Small Business Development Corporation named his the startup of the year.

(Photo by Jon Jeter)

“Ariel identified a niche market,” said Catalina Costano, director of the SBDC’s immigrant entrepreneur program in the city, “and he just ran with it.”

That meant first taking a primer course in making empanadas. Though he had some experience managing a Boston-area food distributorship, Barbouth had no formal culinary training, and his only credentials were intangible, to say the least.

“I love food and I know what I want to eat,” he said with a knowing grin.

So, only a few months after the epiphany provided by his friends’ visit, Barbouth packed an overnight bag, gassed up his car and headed north, driving nearly 800 miles from his home in Buenos Aires to the Andean foothills. There, the provincial capitol of Salta is to Argentina and empanadas what Kansas City is to the U.S. and barbecue.

Over a period of four days, he toured the town’s empanada joints and watched some of Argentina’s most storied chefs whip up all manner of pies. And he ate, sampling so many that he feared he might explode.

“I had more than 100 empanadas in four days,” he recalled. “They were forcing me to eat; I had 13 or 14 every time I sat down.”

Barbouth surfaced from the ordeal with a stomachache and a better idea of what he wanted to do in the kitchen, but still no kitchen. Skyrocketing real estate prices convinced him to wait awhile. Having gone to school in Boston, and worked in both finance and real estate in Argentina, he recognized an asset bubble when he saw it.

“I remembered the dotcom bubble,” said Barbouth, a soft-spoken but pleasant man who exudes a quiet confidence, “and I knew that this real estate bubble was going to burst too.”

In the meantime, he went to work building his brand — renting space in a New Jersey warehouse from a friend, experimenting with different recipes, cooking for friends, and catering small parties. When the real estate bubble did burst, Barbouth began to slowly put his plan in motion — selling his car and rounding up about $38,000 in financing from family and friends. In 2009, he registered the name Nuchas, which means nothing but he thought it catchy — and figured it sounds similar enough to nachos that it would appeal to U.S. consumers. He began baking empanadas to sell wholesale, distributing them to gourmet grocers in the city.

Needing financing to expand into retail, Barbouth approached the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce, who referred him to the borough’s SBDC immigrant entrepreneur program at Brooklyn Technical College. That program helped him write a business plan and the projections required for his loan application. When the Times Square Business Alliance announced that it would begin issuing permits for food vendors in the fall of 2011, he was ready to submit a proposal.

Barbouth’s is both a typical immigrants’ story, and a unique one, Costano said. Born to an upper-middle class family in Argentina and educated in the U.S., he had both connections to people who could help him, and an understanding of how the world of business works. “He was definitely well-equipped,” Costano said.

At his empanada stand, Barbouth has reinvented himself and his product, fusing his old country with his new experiences to create something distinctly American. For instance, his Jambalaya empanada is exceedingly popular here, but would likely get him run out of town on a rail in Buenos Aires. And while Argentine cooks usually use lard in the empanada dough, he uses oil as a concession to American tastes.

“I came with an Argentine product,” he said recently between customers, “but really we’ve had to merge these different kitchens of the world.”

And yet he still will not budge when it comes to size.

“People say the empanadas are so tiny,” Barbouth said. “That’s probably the biggest complaint we get.”

Nuchas enjoyed its briskest sales to date over Easter weekend, and Barbouth’s plan to expand to a food truck is nearing fruition. Already he has hired 14 employees, about half of them full-time.

(Photo by Jon Jeter)

As Barbouth turned back to his customers, a doughy young man frowned while biting into an empanada.

“Does this have onions?” he asked, looking at the two young women who had accompanied him on the trip from their Chicago-area college. “I’m allergic to onions.”

In one fluid motion, Barbouth took a long stride over to the man and plucked the offending empanada from the counter in front of him.

“Here,” he said, “let me get you another one. It’s on the house.”

As the young man bit into the replacement, his classmates finished theirs off, with a look that Barbouth recognized from six year ago. Licking her fingers, one of the young women turned to Barbouth.

“Mister,” she said, “your food is really good.”

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