You never know how one creative idea might lead to another and take on a life of its own. When Katja Estremera offered to make empanadas to raise money for her sixth-grade daughter’s People to People Student Ambassador trip to Alaska five years ago, she couldn’t have imagined it would turn into a full-time, Best of the Main Line and Western Suburbs 2019 award-winning business. After seven months, they reached their goal. Her daughter went to Alaska, and the fundraiser was over. But the demand for Katja’s delicious empanadas continued to grow, and the adventure for this mother of four was only beginning.
For a year and a half, Katja continued to work full time at the job she’d held for 10 years at Lincoln Financial. At the end of each day, she’d spend hours in a commissary kitchen making empanadas, sleeping only two to three hours every night. It quickly became clear that, with such limited hours, she was never going to be able to make enough empanadas to satisfy her ever-expanding customer base at markets and festivals—especially since “You can’t have just one!” She resigned from her day job in December 2017, and a year ago she and her husband Miguel bought a food truck to take their unique blend of Spanish and Puerto Rican flavors on the road.
Katja’s logo, featuring the Spanish and Puerto Rican flags, brings together the two cultures that she honors and celebrates in her food. Her family has roots in both Spain and Puerto Rico, and her husband Miguel’s parents are both from Puerto Rico. It’s important to them to share these rich family culinary traditions. Miguel, who works full time for Verizon and helps with the business nights and weekends, learned to cook from his father and his uncle.
Katja’s name is another significant part of the story her logo tells. “I was named after a Russian-Czech restaurant in New York City where my father was maître d’,” she says. “When we thought about naming the business, Miguel and the family knew my name would be perfect.” She worked with a graphic designer to exactly replicate the font and design from a copy of an old menu to tie together family, culture, and tradition.
Miguel and Katja’s prized recipes are from their parents, and her godfather in New York (at Despaña) uses spices from Spain to make the chorizo for her chorizo con patatas bravas empanadas, where there’s “just enough spice to get the potatoes a bit angry.” The beef and cheese empanada, she says, is classic Puerto Rican. Other classic fillings include chicken and pork, and Katja offers specialty fillings like mushroom risotto, seafood, and pumpkin sage, as well as unique and inspired combinations like chicken bourbon and pineapple. Kennett Square Farmers Market customers can stock up on at least a dozen different varieties of delicious, handmade empanadas and pastelon (a meatier and sweeter version of lasagna made with plantains instead of pasta) on second and fourth Fridays. All of these make quick, easy, delicious, and family-friendly meals.
If you’re lucky, you might find Katja’s beautifully decorated cookies at market as well. “The cookies are my zen,” she says. “Making them calms me, and I can be creative and not have to think.” Cookies can also be ordered for special occasions like showers, birthday parties, or even “just because.”
The cookie zen has been particularly important this summer, she says. She’s had a tough few months that culminated in her truck losing a wheel a few weeks ago. “But I always try to find the positive and look at obstacles as challenges, not failures,” she says. Then she laughs. “Everything is stacked against me—I’m a woman, a business owner, I’m Latin, hot-headed. And I’m from New York!”
It can be hard to balance everything, but Katja hangs on to the words of her father, who always told her that food, drink, and companionship are the central ingredients in life. In the challenging times she also draws strength and encouragement from her farmers market customers, many of whom have become like family. Two women who first tasted her empanadas when they were pregnant, for example, recently showed her pictures of their one-year-olds eating her empanadas. They expressed amazement that their little ones would love them at that age. “Of course,” Katja told them. “They’ve been eating them since they were in the womb!”
Katja’s catering menu offers lots of options to make any gathering fun and delicious, including appetizer-size empanadas called empanadillas. The catering menu, along with the food truck schedule and more information about ordering her clever and whimsical cookie creations, can be found on her website.
She wishes more people knew about the Kennett Square Farmers Market and came on Friday afternoons. But, she says, “Kennett Square is the best place. The people are so supportive, and places like Braeloch are awesome. And I love that the vendors barter and support and feed each other as well.” Stop by to say hello to Katja—and to get your empanada fix.