photo: iStock

Who doesn’t love the yummy, fried (and baked!) goodness of an empanada? Whether filled with ground beef, chicken, or queso these delectable patties that you probably grew up eating have grown in popularity in cities across the U.S. From New York to L.A., empanadas are in high demand in specialty restaurants as well as peddled on the street via food trucks. And one Latina is looking to capitalize on this food trend with her unique invention. 

Meet Hipatia Lopez, a 34-year-old New Jersey–born Ecuatoriana and inventor of the patented kitchen utensil Empanada Fork. Every year this mompreneur of three and her Dominican husband prepare over 100 empanadas for family get-togethers during the holidays. If you have ever prepared empanadas you know that one of the painstaking steps when preparing the turnovers requires pressing a fork into the pastry dough. Lopez was tired of using her fork and during one Thanksgiving in 2010 she had an Oprah-esque "aha" moment: “There has be a better way to do this.” 

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Like many self-made business owners, she sought to solve a problem and took action to create a product to do so. In 2011, she took her first step in the invention process and applied for a patent. Similar to copyrights or trademarks, a patent provides legal protection and bars anyone else from making, using, or selling a similar invention. Lopez hired a lawyer, who explained it would take up to a year for the patent to be approved. He advised that she not disclose to anyone that she was applying for the patent — not even her familia. Thankfully the patent was approved in less than the predicted 12 months. 

“I was so happy when my patent went through,” recalls Lopez from her mother’s kitchen in Elmwood Park, New Jersey. “I’ve known since I was a little girl that I wanted to open up my own business. I’ve always wanted to be my own boss."

With the patent secured, she was able to negotiate a contract with a manufacturer based in China. The entrepreneur was on her way and ready to start selling her product. Lopez launched her company, HL Unico, LLC, and started selling the Empanada Fork online. At the time, she was pretty much a “one-woman shop,” doing everything from maintaining her website, filling, and shipping orders. Once again she questioned whether there was a better way to get things done. 

photo: Hipatia Lopez

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She took the advice of a mentor who challenged her to contact at least three retail store managers per day. She visited several big-box stores in person, clad in a suit and iPad presentation in tow and pitched her product. While store managers seemed impressed, she was unable to close the deal. But this determined Latina didn’t let a few no’s stop her from pursuing other options. 

Lopez continued her side hustle for the next two years and through her own social media clout (over 8K Twitter followers) she garnered media coverage for her business. She recalls one particular on-camera interview with the New Jersey Telemundo affiliate was pretty challenging. 

“I was so nervous because the interview was in Spanish. I am a Spanglish baby. I will start speaking in Spanish but then I will end in English. I don’t know why, ” she laughs. 

Although speaking Spanish on-camera pushed Lopez out of her comfort zone, it also helped gain the attention of a merchandise broker from QVC who just happened to catch the interview airing that day. In 2014, Lopez entered and subsequently won a QVC contest for new product developers during Hispanic Heritage Month. Her award: a one-year contract to sell the Empanada Fork on QVC. And just last year a television producer recruited her to audition for the ultimate competition: Shark Tank.

At first I didn’t think I had the numbers but I decided to [audition] anyway. I have an accounting background and I'm all about the numbers," says the William Paterson alum. After an intensive process, which included a 40-page application and video submission, Lopez did not make the cut. But she was grateful for the opportunity and sees it as a learning experience.  Her advice for inventors and entrepreneurs: 

“Don’t overthink [your idea]. I cannot tell you how many times I have met people at networking events that have come up to me and told me they had the same idea five years ago. We need more Latina inventors out there.” 

Today, Lopez is focused on growing her business all while juggling her part-time accounting job and raising her three kids with her husband. She still has big goals for Empanada Fork with plans to create a package of three different size versions of the kitchen tool. According to the inventor, Empanada Fork isn’t just for empanadas. You can also use the gadget with pierogies, dumplings, and mashed potatoes. Lopez says her husband even uses it for mangu! 

Visit EmpanadaFork.com and follow Hipatia @empanadafork on Twitter, IG and Snapchat.