100 Empanadas and an Invention Made Her an Entrepreneur

The Empanada Fork, Hipatia López’s invention, helps cooks close the dough when making the traditional Latino turnover. (Photo provided to El Diario)

Hipatia López kept the secret for nearly a year, as her lawyer recommended. The day she was finally allowed to share it, she invited her family to a dinner. Her mother, who had noticed that López had been moody lately, was convinced that her daughter was going to announce that she was going to give her another grandchild.

No, the New Jersey resident of Ecuadorean descent was not expecting her fourth child. She was celebrating that, in one year, she had been able to secure the patent for a kitchen utensil – the Empanada Fork – that she had invented to free herself from the tedious problem of closing her empanadas, and that she had incorporated her company, named HL Único LLC, to produce and sell it.

The tool – and her determination to move ahead with her company – made López one of the five winners of the Project American Dreams contest selected to launch their products on the HSN television channel, which reaches 94 million homes. López, 40, is one of the four Latinos who will debut on the shopping network on March 13.

With only a few weeks to go, López remembers that she “cried like a baby” when she was told she was a finalist. “This is all I wanted from the beginning: Just a chance.”

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Hipatia López, creator of the Empanada Fork, an invention she designed and patented, which she is now launching on the HSN television network. (Photo provided to El Diario)

The journey began in her kitchen. López, who studied accounting and works for a company, says that empanadas are always part of the menu when her family gathers to eat. As she grew up, the family has had to increase the number of empanadas they make. “We started out with 30, but we had one Christmas when we made about 100,” she says.

She has always been assigned the task of closing the empanadas. “By the time you have closed just 10 of the ‘discs’ by pressing them with a fork, your fingers hurt,” she explains. The night she had to close 100 of them, she kept thinking about possible ways to do it in a more efficient manner. She came up with an idea, but what if the utensil already existed and she just did not know about it?

“I couldn’t get it out of my head,” she says. That is how a relationship with Google started. The search engine has accompanied her during much of her endeavor.

“I got online to see if an item like that existed and didn’t see it. I didn’t know I was going to be the one to invent it.” After an unsuccessful search, she sketched a design with the idea of getting a patent.

“But I had no idea about patents,” she said. Again, Google helped her find a lawyer, who told her that she had to go to a patent agent. She found one and, even though he was not Latino and knew little about empanadas, he saw potential in López’s proposal for a pastry tool.

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The attorney put her in contact with his nephew, a recently-graduated architect, who helped her design the utensil. And so her long wait began. That was in 2011. The process of obtaining a patent takes a while.

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However, López already saw herself as an entrepreneur. She registered her company, even though she had no idea if she would get the patent or not, and set out to investigate how she could produce her Empanada Fork.

Once again, she turned to the online search engine. Her idea was to make a plastic tool, so she looked for a manufacturer.

López realized that opportunity is not always easy to come by. Many manufacturers would not even meet with her because she was not a big company, and were not interested in making a prototype or produce less than 10,000 units. “Many people would hang up on me. I had to keep changing my presentation until two of them – one in North Carolina and another one in Hackensack [New Jersey] – gave me a chance.”

Finally, she talked with a manufacturer in her own state, but Empanada Fork did not work well in plastic and she decided to make it out of stainless steel. The same manufacturer put her in contact with producers in China, since the price she was given in the U.S. was too high for the product.

When she obtained the patent, López ordered the first 3,000 units, which are selling for $20 at stores such as UncommonGoods and Bakedeco. The initial investment, as is the case with many other entrepreneurs, came from a line of credit on López’s own house.

Happy about her TV opportunity, López hopes that her company, where she is the only employee, will now start to grow and make a profit (last year, she broke even). She trusts that, in addition to increasing her sales, this will open the doors of specialty stores that have not paid attention to her. “That has been the biggest challenge: to have a company say to me that they will not sell my product without even giving me the chance to show it to them. I find that very frustrating.”

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