At Juan & Maria's Empanada Stop, a bell chimes regularly throughout the day, ringing along with the festive Latin music in the background. Its sound does not indicate the time, however—it greets every 50th customer to the empanada hot spot and rewards him or her with $5 worth of complimentary Spanish cuisine. When Chilean couple Juan and Maria Contreras opened their stand in 2000, they rarely had the opportunity to use the bell, as they were serving between 10 and 20 customers on any given Saturday. Today they dish out their empanadas to more than 1,000 guests, vying to beat their current record of 1,404 patrons in eight hours.
Their popularity stems in part from a commitment to traditional, healthy cooking methods. Each of their empanadas is handmade and stuffed with one of 12 types of filling, including 90% lean beef and pork as well as vegetarian options. The deep fryers are filled with light salad oil, and none of the menu items include chemicals or preservatives. Juan and Maria extend the same homemade treatment to their fruit juices, which can be frozen and sold as "Juan-sicles," and their four hot sauces: green gold, red gold, spanish mayo and spanish ketchup.
Attitude accounts for a second element of the pair's success. Their mix of hospitality and cultural pride draws diners to the light-blue shop, where Juan exuberantly lists the specials to newcomers. They have hosted the Juan & Maria's International Spanish Festival for the past four years, showcasing customs from 20 Spanish-speaking countries alongside their empanadas.