#NewtoNext, COCINA 54 Empanadas, Cecilia Panichelli
September 23, 2021 | Inspiration
When it comes to the consumer product goods (CPG) industry, few people have more understanding and experience than Cecilia Panichelli. She’s worked both on the product and corporate side, serving as a category manager for Nestle’s beverage division in her native Argentina.
In 2017 she founded COCINA 54 Empanadas, frozen made-from-scratch empanadas, a tribute to her Latin American heritage.
As a seasoned CPG professional, Cecilia is a pro at directly interacting with consumers through tastings, retails events, or tradeshows. But, COVID changed everything. Looking for ways to pivot and meet customers at home, Cecilia researched different opportunities to market COCINA 54 virtually. As a result, she applied to the 2020 Annual Enthuse Foundation Pitch Competition and was named runner-up.
We caught up with Cecilia to see how her business has grown and changed in an unprecedented year for CPG brands
Watch the entire conversation here.
Enthuse Foundation (EF): How did the start of COVID impact your business?
Cecilia Panichelli, Founder, COCINA 54 (CP): Because of COVID, we had to revisit how we work. We used to do many in-store demos, talking to customers and telling them about our product. That’s how people bought the product and tried it for the first time that way. So the question became, ‘how can we a little brand connect with the consumer at home. If they go to the store, how do we tell our story? How do we connect with them?’ People started ordering online, and we didn’t anticipate that at the beginning. Initially, we were set up to be a wholesale brand. With COVID, people were finding us on Amazon or trying to buy directly on our website. So we had to shift our business model. Our customers want the simplicity of ordering online and getting the product delivered to their homes.
EF: What made you enter the Enthuse Foundation Pitch Competition?
CP: Everything became virtual, and we were looking for ways to continue to connect with the community. We saw this fantastic opportunity from the Enthuse Foundation and appreciated the opportunity to connect with other women.
EF: Why do you think your pitch deck stood out and was selected as a finalist?
CP: I think it was a combination of articulating the problem our product is solving and why I am the right person to solve it. We saw the American dinner table has been changing. With that, it was an opportunity for us to bring something to the table. We could produce products that were better for you and have a Latin American flavor.
EF: I think what you said is vital. Entrepreneurs should identify the problem and answer how their product can solve it. Or explain how their product is doing something better. Being able to answer those questions will let your business stand out from the competition. So once you were named as a finalist, what was the experience of pitching virtually like?
CP: I’m terrified of being on stage. So virtual works to my advantage. English is my second language, so I’m self-conscious on stage. I can have my notes right next to me. But also, it’s hard because you can’t see everyone’s faces and receive that immediate feedback.
EF: Well, this time, you did receive immediate feedback and were named the runner-up of the Competition. How did the prizes help COCINA 54? Editor’s Note: COCINA 54 walked away with $5K in cash and in-kind services. Cecilia used her Enthuse Marketing professional service hours to create e-mail marketing templates to engage with customers in a new way.
CP: As mentioned earlier, connecting with our customers in the new virtual environment has been challenging. As part of our in-kind professional services from Enthuse Marketing, we explained our problem to the professionals. Together, we created clear e-mail templates to help communicate our story to consumers. The Enthuse team helped us focus and answer questions about objectives and goals. It was so lovely to have something cohesive that told our story. It was a treat for us.
EF: What specifically were those e-mail templates used for?
CP: April 8th is National Empanada Day. So we created an e-mail template specifically to celebrate and offer online coupons. That was a way to thank our community for their support and always rooting for us. Then we worked on a back-to-school design because that’s a key time for us. Our customers tell us they don’t have time to prepare dinner and look for a healthy option for their kids. It’s an incredible thing for us to be able to help with their busy lives. And being a mom myself, I connect with that 100%. We use only fresh vegetables, antibiotic-free meats. It’s also certified gluten-free. We get feedback all the time saying, ‘thank you, this product is amazing. It’s delicious. I never thought a frozen product would taste these fresh, and I’m like, Yes, it’s made differently.’
EF: When you first began thinking of starting a business, why highlight your Hispanic heritage?
CP: It’s being able to share who I am. I have this accent, and I cannot deny it. My taste in food is particular. Bringing those Latin American flavors with the flavors in the U.S. is wonderful to combine that diversity in the best way possible. I miss Argentina, the flavors, and my family. This has been a great channel to connect everything. Having these platforms that showcase the things that Hispanics or Latinos can do, it’s terrific. It’s what our kids need. And I am very optimistic about the future. Editor’s Note: Check out “National Hispanic Heritage Month 2021” on COCINA 54 to learn more about Cecilia’s journey from Argentina to the United States.
EF: Absolutely. And what has it been like to have your daughters with you on this entrepreneurial journey?
CP: It’s been incredible. Our two girls have been with us every step of the way. They see what it takes to build a company. That it is not always easy. That sometimes, it’s hard, but perseverance and hard work will get you there. The fact that our kids have grown up embracing both their American and Hispanic heritage makes this journey worthwhile.
EF: Well said. So you spoke earlier about how COVID forced you to change your go-to-market strategy. Looking at the past year, how has COCINA 54 evolved?
CP: Immediately, I think of two things that really helped our business. First, our partnership with Gopuff, which caters to consumers that are really strapped for time. Gopuff has been strategic with its focus on working with companies that are diverse and bring innovation. The company moves quickly, and I’m incredibly impressed with everything they do. They said – ‘we love your product, can we have it next week!’ Right now, we are in approximately 40 distribution centers for them. The second one, a pinch-me moment for us, is when we got into Target in May 2021. We are like the moms going to Target and are really looking for something that brings value. A product that has quality ingredients that they can trust, and, perfectly, we are right there. Indeed, being able to survive last year and more than double our business last year felt good given all the circumstances.
Conclusion: If you are looking for new ways to promote your business, explore ways to step up out of your comfort zone. Like Cecilia, lean into your background and clearly articulate what makes your product unique. So, follow Cecilia’s lead and apply to the Enthuse Foundation Pitch Competition. Who knows – you might be our next winner.
Sign Up For Our Newsletter