Aaron and Margaret Penton draw you into their small Divine Empanada food truck with infectious smiles and hospitality but hook you with their crispy dough pockets filled with love.The …
Aaron and Margaret Penton draw you into their small Divine Empanada food truck with infectious smiles and hospitality but hook you with their crispy dough pockets filled with love.
The pastors-turned-entrepreneurs have big plans for the future.
Aaron Penton grew up in Seattle, Washington, and made his way to Miami, Florida, after high school with a pastor who was taking over a church. He fell in love with the Miami culture and his future wife, Margaret. They married in 2002. Over the years, their journey led them to Atlanta, Georgia, and then Baldwin County about seven years ago.
The couple share a love of Christ, family, food and travel.
"We are huge foodies," Aaron Penton said. "We always wanted to open some type of business. In 2017, we took a trip back to Miami and we were talking through Little Havana eating everything in sight, and it hit us. Why not empanadas? We took the time and started investigating how to do it and how to introduce it to the community."
It took nearly nine months to go through all the proper channels and get permits. They experimented with recipes and practiced the process of making each empanada by hand. The first flavor on the menu was Conecuh sausage because it is approachable to the Baldwin County customer.
"The first thing we did was join the Eastern Shore Chamber of Commerce. We went in and served everyone, and they have been absolutely wonderful in helping us and being a partner with us. They loved them. We also had a tasting here at Coastal Café with about 100 people. We let them try everything, and everyone said they were great," Penton said.
With the momentum of that early support, the Pentons set up a tent with one hot box full of 70 empanadas at the Fairhope Farmers Market in the spring of 2019. Every week, they worked the market and had a great response. With each passing week, they honed their skills, slowly increased production and added to the menu.
They worked to create a menu of flavors that are unique to the Baldwin County palate and what they enjoy as a family. Each also calls back to family recipes and flavors. Penton said they mixed Latin flavors with a soulful twist. They also use an old family recipe they call Grandma Blanche's Sweet and Sour Sauce to marinade their chicken, Conecuh and pulled pork.
"This is Margaret's grandmother's recipe, and she was a cook and housekeeper from way back," he said. "It is an all-purpose sauce on all meats, fish, and I even use it on our pulled pork now," Penton said. "It is a vinegar-based marinade that is sweet but also sour. When you taste it, you get the Caribbean flavor."
The Penton family has been working with a co-packer in Mobile to bottle the sauce for retail sale. Penton said he hopes production will be full-scale in the next few months.
The bottling of their own sauce is just one more layer to their business plan. While the spread of COVID-19 threw everyone in business a curve ball, the Pentons opted to pivot.
With the Fairhope Farmer's Market closed, the family of six decided to run a special of 10 empanadas for $25 on their Facebook and Instagram pages to see what would happen. They also sent an email blast out to those they had in a database of past customers.
"We weren't doing anything, so it was like why not? We delivered to Spanish Fort, Daphne, Fairhope, Summerdale and Mobile. It was huge and increased our customer base and reach. We did enough business to stay afloat, which was great," Penton said.
Thanks to the pivot during the pandemic, the Divine Empanada brand gained reach across the whole county and into Mobile and gave the Pentons the confidence to take the next step. In April 2021, they purchased a small food trailer. They also bought an electric empanada crimper that has increased production by 50%.
"We have to teach this generation. We want to have a Divine Institute where we bring in different entrepreneurs and different people in the community to talk about work ethic and to encourage and inspire young people to go after their dreams," Penton said.
The passion for community is strong with the Pentons, and they try to use the food truck to touch lives in many different ways including helping the Mobile Police Department bridge the gap between the police and the community.
"Right now, we are partnering with the Mobile Police Department to serve at several of their stop gun violence events this summer. They have hired us to come out with the food truck and several other businesses in the community to have tents and activities to let the kids know we are here to support you," Penton said.
They also want to inspire their own children, but this is something they are doing as an inspiration to the community.
"People need to see, as an African-American, they need to see successful African-Americans doing something positive. That is not saying that most of us are not, but we just need that example," Penton said. "African-American youth as well as all youth need to see that. They need to see our face and how we carry ourselves. They need to see why we are successful and why people are going to the truck. All of that encompasses what we want to do and what we want to portray to our community."
For more information or to order empanadas visit www.divineempanadas.online. To see where the truck will be located throughout the week visit the Divine Empanada Facebook page.