NxG Award 2018 Finalist Margarita Womack
Member Association: Colombia
Project description: Al Sur Latin Kitchen produces clean label dishes based on typical Colombian street foods to fuel people on the go. Its first line of products, called M’Panadas, is the result of fusing traditional Latin turnovers with modern American cuisine.
Year initiated: 2017
Dr. Margarita Womack is a business executive and science professional. She holds a bachelor of science from Tulane University and a PhD from Princeton University in biology.
Currently, she is dedicated to developing her own start up, a company bringing fusion South American street foods to the metro DC area and investing in real estate through a family company.
Previously, Dr. Womack was involved in science education and research through teaching K-12, leading the development of a non-profit to foster science in her home country, Colombia, and carrying out primary research at Princeton University.
How does your project provide a solution to a problem or satisfies a specific need?
We make delicious and wholesome food for people on the go. Using locally sourced fresh ingredients, we design products that fuse Colombian flavors and the concepts of street food with modern American cuisine. Our hand-held dishes are nutritious, customizable, portable, ready in minutes, and require no clean up. They are ideal for busy families looking to enjoy a satisfying snack or meal that they can feel good about.
Through recent market research, we have learned that a particularly good strategy for successfully breaking into the market might be to focus on a vegan empanada using the traditional Colombian corn crust. This recipe is naturally gluten free and would be a differentiated strategy providing a unique snack in a space where very few options are available.
How do you create customer value?
Our products have the following advantages:
Portable: Come packaged in a microwaveable/oven-safe dish. Once cooked (only a couple of minutes in the microwave) you do not need any utensils to enjoy M’panadas. The dish remains cool, so you can take it along right way.
No clean-up: As no utensils are required, and each M’panada is its own contained pocket, there is no mess.
Wholesome yet delicious: We use all natural, clean-label ingredients. M’panadas are also air fried, and each filling is loaded with veggies and protein.
How is your project innovative?
My project combines the portability and convenience of street foods with nutritional science to create a unique product to satisfy the needs of busy people. M’panadas are a hot, satisfying and wholesome food with a long shelf life that is ready to eat in minutes. In addition, M’panadas can be customized to fit a variety of dietary needs, such as vegan and gluten free.
How do you plan to grow, scale, and expand the impact of your idea?
My next challenge is to expand using food service and the new the consumer retail packaged line to eventually reach national level distribution.
The first challenge to tackle is production: I invested in specialized machinery that expedites empanada assembly (a process that up to now we did by hand) and a commercial air fryer. Between 2 people, it is possible to produce up to 2500 empanadas in a day. My current bottleneck is producing the dough discs, so the next step would be to acquire a dough sheeter. With my current set-up, I will be able to cover the metro DC area and possibly expand to the mid-Atlantic region. Past this point, I will hire a contract manufacturer (co- packer), to scale-up production to continue expanding to national level.
Create the right team and organizational culture: I have the opportunity to grow an organization from scratch. Defining and fostering a community of respect, support, and hard work is essential to success.
Continually explore product-market fit: my ideas have been constantly evolving since the inception of this company, and I have no doubts that this will always be the case. The more I learn about the food industry and consumer needs, the better I will be able to adapt my products to bring to market what people really want.
Continue to grow leadership skills: accomplishing all of the above requires me to continue learning to be an effective leader.
What is the most valuable mistake that you have made, and what did you learn from it?
The biggest mistake that I have made so far was to block a large portion of my capital into packaging materials, thus restricting my flexibility. Purchasing a large volume of packaging materials lowers the price per unit. I wanted those savings, so I placed orders as large as I could at every turn, and kept them in the finished basement of my home. It became physically impossible to walk between the wobbly towers of pizza-like boxes for the catering side of the business. And more were on the way... thousands more corrugated cardboard boxes for food service. Then trays and outer sleeves for the frozen line. They also filled the playroom and then the guest room. We finally had to move them out. It took a whole day of work and hiring a crew to move everything to a storage facility next to the kitchen. Not only had I spent a good fraction of my capital on these boxes, but I also had incurred the cost of the move and the recurring cost of the storage. Then, of course, I realized that updates to my original box designs needed a number of tweaks. But for now, I am stuck with the boxes I have!
I learned a lot from this misstep. First, even though I saved some money on the front end, I lost it on the back-end. My cost calculations need to go beyond just the purchase price and also include future expenses these purchases might involve. Second, by making such a large purchase, I now carry an enormous inventory that is a downside for cash flow. Third, at this point in my business, everything is a prototype. Locking myself into this high number of boxes keeps me from nimbly making changes as I learn more about what works and what doesn’t with my packaging.
How being from a family business has impacted you as a person, and which influence this has in turn had on your project?
I am a third generation member of a family business in Colombia. I grew up in a world where business is another aspect of family, and entrepreneurship is regarded as a core value. I was primed from an early age to succeed in business. As a child, I made brownies and bracelets and sold them at school during breaks. As a teen, I started a rabbit farm and sold rabbits as pets. However, the culture in Colombia, and by extension my family, is generally male-centered. In business, men are always in charge, and the women’s involvement is peripheral. Even though I had a natural inclination for business, I instead followed my passion for science; it never crossed my mind that I could be an official part of my family’s business.
I moved to the USA after a Colombian guerilla group, FARC, attempted to extort my mother in 2000. I went on to earn a PhD in biology and was on the path to a successful career in academia. Around the same time, we started the succession of power from second to third generation in our family business in Colombia. My brother, as expected since his birth, took over running our branch. married an American, further solidifying my ties to the USA. When we had our first son, things started changing. Though I felt at ease in my new American life, I missed that sense of belonging that only family can bring, and my longing was somehow enhanced now that I had my own children. I thought I could regain part of that by having a real role in the family business, an opportunity to interact with my brother and cousins and work together towards the greater good. But I faced not only cultural barriers but also the physical distance, as we were on different continents. No one took me very seriously.
The stars aligned and I hatched the idea for Al Sur Latin Kitchen. This was the opportunity to prove myself and to my family that I could be a successful leader in business. From my upbringing, I had the basic tools for entrepreneurship, and the drive to try something new. Working out of an incubator kitchen on a product that did not need significant investment to get started, my project was low risk and potentially high reward. Ties to a family business shaped who I am, and a reaction to its norms sparked the inception of Al Sur Latin Kitchen.