Photos by Adam Detour
Nearly every inch is occupied at CommonWealth Kitchen in Dorchester on a Tuesday morning in early fall. Tucked into a niche among storage shelves in a back room Melissa Stefanini, 32, and Sebastian Galvez, 35, co-partners in Buenas, sit at a small round table peeling sticky labels off sheets of paper backing and affixing them to jars filled with their vibrant green chimichurri. The couple, who have been living in Boston for four years, grew up in Miami. They are both first-generation North Americans with South American roots—Argentina on her side, Chile and Uruguay on his.
In 2011, when they were living in Los Angeles, Stefanini and Galvez started making empanadas. At the time Galvez was working as a chef and Stefanini was a copywriter at an advertising agency. She brought the first batch to work to share with her colleagues. They were so popular that people wanted to order more to take home. This was the beginning of what Stefanini calls “the seed of an idea” for their current business. They made chimichurri—a classic uncooked South American sauce—and pebre—a more spicy Chilean sauce—to accompany their savory filled pastries.
About a year later, when Arnold Worldwide advertising agency in Boston recruited Stefanini, she explained that she and her boyfriend had a burgeoning business and asked whether the agency would allow them to sell their food on-site. “It was a big bluff that they called,” says Galvez. And it helped launch Buenas in Boston.
After Stefanini began her job at Arnold, Galvez found work as a chef with East Meets West Catering. But one day each week, he made empanadas in the Arnold kitchen and sold them at a stand the agency had built. Every lunchtime he sold out of everything he made. Galvez also used the kitchen at KO at the Shipyard, renting from proprietor Sam Jackson during the East Boston location’s off-hours.
“Every part of the story of moving here and everyone that we met seems like fate,” says Stefanini. Not knowing the city, they moved to an apartment in South Boston “kind of by mistake,” she says. But shortly after, a friend told them about nearby KO Pies and Jackson. “We’ve been lucky to have so many good friends that we’ve met in Boston that are [food] business owners. That has been our biggest asset,” says Galvez.
The couple like to say they “inherited” or “stole” their recipes from their families. “We were born here but we have heavy influence from our parents. It gives us a unique perspective,” says Stefanini.
Traditionally chimichurri is made with vinegar, but Galvez uses lemon juice because he prefers it. “My pebre is also a little unique,” he says. “A lot of them [in Chile] have tomatoes. I don’t use tomatoes. I grew up at home with and without, and so I like it without.” Customers can enjoy Buenas’ pebre either way, adding their own tomatoes at home if they want. It’s fresher that way, “so we always encourage that,” says Galvez.
From customers, friends and their own experimentation, “We’ve figured out that there’s so many more uses than we originally knew for both sauces, which has been a revelation for us. And it’s sold more sauce,” says the chef.
Buenas really took off when Galvez and Stefanini moved production to CommonWealth Kitchen in late 2016. “The connections have been awesome,” says Galvez. In a little over a year the couple has placed their sauces in 10 retail locations and the list is growing; they will begin supplying chimichurri to Harvard University dining services by the end of 2017.
In October Stefanini and Galvez launched an Indiegogo campaign to help fund their new 166-square-foot storefront, scheduled to open in March 2018 in Somerville’s new Bow Market. There they will carry the entire line of Buenas products and test-market new ones, including new empanada varieties. The couple will continue to make their food in CommonWealth Kitchen. They are waiting for a new sheeter, which will dramatically increase their empanada-dough-making capacity. One of their long-term plans is to sell frozen prepared empanadas.
Stefanini continues to work in advertising, though she left Arnold a couple of years ago. And Galvez still pitches in very occasionally at East Meets West. But business is growing every month; the Harvard order alone will require a fourfold increase in production.
“We sort of see ourselves as, obviously not nearly as big or as established [as], Goya—something that you find in pretty much every part of a store,” says Stefanini. But unlike the grocery store giant, Buenas is not trying to market to the Latin community. “We’d like our products to be on the regular shelf,” says Galvez. “It’s American; but it’s also South American.”
As of press time, Buenas sauces are available at 10 retail locations and at: buenas.com. Empanadas are available at Taza in the Boston Public Market and Formaggio South End.
This story appeared in the Winter 2018 issue.