This Former Food Truck Owner Shares What it Takes to Drive Success in a Food Hall

Growing up, Stephanie Swanz found herself constantly surrounded by good food. Her mom’s side of the family is Cuban, and her grandmother was always joining everyone together for meals filled with dishes like ropa vieja, picadillo with plantain chips, and platillo (spicy spaghetti). Eventually, Swanz’s aunt taught her how to make one of the family’s classics – empanadas, filled with ingredients of all kinds. 

“That day was really long – we made the dough and spent all day rolling out the empanadas,” says Swanz, now owner of Tampa-based Empamamas and Muchachas.  “I should’ve learned then that they were really labor intensive. But they were absolutely delicious.”

In college, Swanz began using the deep fried pockets of deliciousness to swoon her newly minted boyfriend. It was an instant hit. Soon, she was making them for all of her friends, too. And eventually everyone was encouraging her to turn empanadas into a business.

“At that same time, I was helping a friend who’s an up-and-coming country artist book shows, and I started taking empanadas to the shows,” says Swanz. “At one of them, a friend was super drunk, hanging out in a lounge chair, and called out, ‘Hey Empamama!’”. 

It was settled. Swanz found her new business name. By the next day, she’d secured the Instagram handle for Empamamas, along with a Facebook page and the domain for her soon-to-be website. 

Fast forward two years, and the business was officially born, launched out of a food truck in Tampa. The truck quickly went on to win a handful of awards in its first year of business. And by her second year, Swanz transitioned into a food hall, Armature Works, where she’s since launched a second business, Muchachas. Both ventures are among the most successful stalls in the food hall. 

We sat down with Swanz to learn more about how she got her start, her learnings from the food truck, and her top advice for how to thrive within a food hall business model.

What went into the decision to launch out of a food truck?

I was living in Gainesville at the time, going back and forth with moving back home to Tampa. My full-time job was in hospitality with Hilton Hotels on their sales team. I was bringing in millions of dollars to this hotel, but making $45,000 at the most with some bonuses. I figured, if I could do this for Hilton, I could do [Empamamas].

Two weeks before I turned 30 years old, I decided to quit my job and move home. My mom was in real estate and happened to sell a house to a couple who owned a [food] truck in New Jersey. I ended up babysitting for them, and eventually they brought the truck down and asked me to work on the truck. 

I started seeing this come together, and thought, Empamamas could really be a food truck. In Tampa, the food truck scene was really booming. There were a lot of events, and Tampa was on the cusp of growth. So for about four months I continued to work on the truck and put a plan together to start building my own [food truck business]. We launched in February of 2016.

The day before [launching], my best friend and I worked from 6 a.m. ’till about midnight rolling 600 empanadas. I remember thinking to myself, “I have to do this for every damn event, what did I just get myself into?” But our first event was extremely successful, and so I figured I had something good and would try to figure out how to make the process more efficient. I spent the next few weeks figuring out how to do just that.

Can you share some of the benefits and also primary challenges you experienced from running your first food business out of a truck?

My goal with the food truck was to take my name and my product to people, and not wait for people to come to me. The main benefit was that I could choose where I wanted to go.

I decided I’d be smarter with my time, book really large events Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, and save a lot of time, effort, and energy. The food truck life isn’t for the faint of heart. You’re loading up what’s potentially a 20,000 pound kitchen and driving to different locations. If you want to work a lunch shift, your day’s going to be from about 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. Rather than lunch, I’d rather add another hour or two and do large events and triple my profits. 

You’re limited on what events you have though, and so the challenge was sometimes not having some of those large events that were in our demographic. And then just the physical demand – the time it takes to potentially sell just for three or four hours. It’s much easier to walk into a kitchen, receive an order from a supplier, prep and make food, and clean-up, versus doing the exact same thing on a food truck. You’re dealing with the elements of heat and weather. We’re in Florida, so it feels like it’s 170 million degrees on a food truck with three fryers and a bunch of cooking equipment.

Relatively quickly, you were itching to get out of the food truck. Can you talk about the primary factors driving the decision to specifically transition to a food hall?

I went to school for event management, and I’m just someone who follows trends. I had been hearing a lot about food halls. Then the location [where I applied for a food hall stall] was in the same area I was most successful in when I’d work my events. Plus it had a roof, A/C, a restroom – it took all of these challenges out of the equation. Not having to pick up and move everyday is now the best part.

I originally got denied to be a vendor. I think maybe I was too fresh, just six months into operating the food truck. But over the next few months, we picked up a slew of awards in various competitions, and I got a call from a food truck friend about a rotating stall in the same market, and so I tried again. This time I brought food – we got accepted to be the second rotating vendor. 

Over the next three months, I still had my food truck running, and I’d see the [food hall] owners at various events. I kept telling them I’d be their best tenant and I wouldn’t be leaving, and it became this running joke. Sure enough, the food hall opened, and one of the tenants couldn’t make it. So they asked if I wanted to move in early [as a permanent tenant], if I’d add tacos to our menu, and if I’d start serving tomorrow. My first day, we did over $6,000 in business. 

I’m a very competitive person. I told them I’d be their best tenant. And our first year of being there, we were their top producer.

Are there any similarities between the truck and the food hall experience that you think helped you succeed within the food hall?

There’s no doubt. Armature Works is a very busy food hall. On weekends, the crowds are insane. So it’s just like the large events we worked on our food truck, where we were able to figure out the turn and burn process, while being clean, giving good customer service, and putting out good food. 

Right now we’re averaging 66.25 registered transactions per hour on Saturdays. Being able to handle large volumes really impacted our success. We also knew how to operate in a small space. Our food truck was about 150 square feet, and our kitchen is about the same size, with an additional front-of-house area. We have a total of 370 square feet, which includes all of our storage.

Not every food business excels within a food hall. From your experience, what kind of concepts do you think are ideal for this type of business model?

A lot of operators tend to think, “Oh this place is busy so we can just let our staff run it and things will be great.” Management is super important in a tight space. It’s a very intense operation. We’re in a 370-square-foot space, and we’re open 363 days a year. I have staff onsite from 7 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. There's a lot of food coming in and out. Your operation, and having policies and procedures to create best practices, is the most important piece to the puzzle. There are also some owners who don’t want to really be involved, but I think the owners who show up are the most successful. 

Then you want a small menu with affordable options, and stuff that comes out quickly. You don’t want to go to Empamamas and your food comes out five minutes later, but the person you’re with orders something down the hall, and it takes 35 minutes. 

What else do you think it takes to succeed within a food hall environment?

A really great team. I’m very fortunate to have an incredible staff. Caring about your team is extremely important. We pay them well and actually care about what goes on in their lives outside of work, and with that kind of mentality, we’ve been able to retain. I have 10 managers on board between both locations, and my least tenured manager has been with us for two years.

We make sure people, including our management, get two days off a week, and I think that’s really important. A lot of people struggle with wanting to be in this industry because of the stress, long hours, low pay, and how they’re treated. Without our team, the business definitely wouldn’t be possible.

There’s a lot of food halls going up around the country. I’d be cautious if it’s just a food hall, and it’s just serving food. The reason that the food hall I’m at is so successful is because there’s more to do. There’s a riverwalk, there’s an events area, there’s concerts, there’s people living and businesses on our property. There’s got to be more than just food.

Any plans to open a brick and mortar?

Yes. We are looking to grow, but from a brick and mortar perspective, I think my route will actually be Muchachas. Muchachas has been proven to beat Empamamas. We’re very close – about 5% in sales. Empamamas is my baby. I really want to keep it for now, as a bit of a Tampa staple, and I’m OK with the one location. It might change tomorrow for all I know with the right opportunity, but growth for us will probably be Muchachas.