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Ryan Lopez

Episode 146

Learning the Industry to Reach Lordship

Ryan Lopez was born and raised in Los Angeles, CA. He created Lord Empanada as a necessity after losing his job due during the Pandemic in 2020. Ryan started Lord Empanada out as a popup in August of 2020, prepping the Empanadas out of his parent’s kitchen and frying them in a portable fryer on the weekends outside of local breweries. He was fortunate to quickly gain a positive following and was able to open a brick & mortar on October 21, 2021. He and his team have been blessed with good business and fortune ever since February 2023, when Yelp named Lord Empanada #61 on their Top 100 Places to Eat in the Country. Ryan feels he owes all and any future success he has to his parents, friends, family, community and his TEAM. They continue to support other local small businesses and those who helped guide Ryan when he was first starting out by selling their products in our storefront and also promote their brands on our growing social media platforms. Without the help of his community, there would be no Lord Empanada, and Ryan is forever grateful.

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Ryan Lopez Quotes

  • “I didn’t even know about it until the new article was launched. So that happened at the end of January. My dad had come in and showed me this article. I had no idea what it was. Then, about ten minutes later, FedEx arrived with this huge congratulatory package from Yelp, saying that we were number 61 on their top 100 places to eat into 2023. Literally, the next day, there was a line out the door, nonstop calling on the phone. We had to shut down two or three times a day because we could not keep up with demand.”
  • “That’s where I really learned to fine-tune the details of everything, not just management, because I had 120 employees below me, as well as eight managers, and I was learning the fine details of the numbers.”
  • “When I was creating a logo, I wanted to be clear about what we do and to be good at it because everyone tries to do too many of one thing, and then they get lost in the shuffle. And I just wanted to be known for our empanadas and chimichurri.”
  • “Doing a full-service restaurant is significantly harder than the quick-service concept we’re doing. When you add the full-service, you’re relying a lot on your servers and a team versus having a small team, a reliable product, and your branding.”

Though raised in Monrovia, California, Ryan Lopez’s roots trace back to Argentina. It was the traditional Argentine beef empanada that inspired him to start Lord Empanadas, his hit grab-and-go empanada shop. After losing his job during the pandemic, Ryan launched a pop-up empanada business that quickly gained traction, allowing him to open the Lord Empanadas storefront in Monrovia.

With an extensive background working in all facets of the restaurant and hospitality industry – from high-end dining to nightclubs and managing LAX Terminal 2 restaurants – Ryan was well-prepared to run his thriving concept. Lord Empanadas exploded after going viral on Instagram and TikTok and being rated #61 on Yelp’s top 100 places to eat in 2023. This led to doubling sales for Lord Empanadas while still maintaining stellar ratings.

While staying true to authentic Argentine empanadas, Ryan expanded the menu with creative empanadas like spinach and cheese and spicy black bean, as well as dessert and breakfast options. He credits his small but consistent team for enabling them to handle the massive demand without compromising quality as the business rapidly grew.

You do empanadas right?

We started as a little pop-up during the pandemic, making empanadas. I grew up on beef, the traditional beef Argentina empanada. My grandma and my father were born and raised in Argentina, so that’s what I grew up on, even though I was born and raised here in Monrovia in the San Gabriel Valley. 

I’ve always been in the restaurant hospitality industry, but when the pandemic happened, I lost my job. I was running a club up in San Francisco, but I had to move back down to Monrovia and create the concept of Lord Empanada to keep it very simple. You could see how everything was changing after the pandemic hit. I created the brand and started off with a few different types of empanadas, and fortunately, it took off from there.

lord-empanadas-in-monrovia

 

Are your parents from Argentina?

My dad was born and raised in Argentina. He came to LA when he was a teenager, and that’s where they grew up. My mom was born and raised in Hawaii, and she moved to LA in her younger teenage years, and that’s where they met. 

It was completely random. She was working as a TA at USC, and he was an undercover cop for LAPD, so they’ve been LA natives for a while now. Then, I was born and raised here.

 

What was it like growing up in Monrovia?

It was great. Monrovia is an amazing, wonderful, community-driven town. I love being part of that community again, even last night during Halloween. It’s a very community-involved city, with old town Monroeville being just the center and epitome of what a city should be, where all the restaurants and everyone’s supporting each other are throwing events for the community and the kids. It’s just a really amazing town to be a part of.

 

You’re mixed, growing up, did you know that you were?

Not really. I went to Barnhart’s, which is an Arcadia, and that’s a very mixed, diverse group of kids. Then I went to St. Francis High School. I’ve always gone to mixed, culturally diverse schools, so it wasn’t that difficult of a transition. I was always involved with sports or other extracurriculars. I was never an outcast or a minority.

I blended in with everybody, and that was a privilege. I never felt like I was on the outside looking in. I always felt like part of the community.

 

When did your interest with cooking start?

My parents have owned restaurants since I was a little kid. They’ve always had little mom-and-pop shops. So, I was always in that environment where my dad barbecued at home. He was cooking Argentine chorizo, or Castillo’s, which is like Argentine short ribs. 

So, I was always in that environment of just home-cooked meals, learning how to cook for my dad. My mom was cooking other items, whether it was roscompoyo or just simple breakfast items. 

I always enjoyed doing those things with them. It kind of became part of me as I was growing up, working in the industry, starting as a dishwasher, busser, and server at their restaurants. I was a director of operations for LAX in Terminal Two, running the restaurants in that area.

 

Did you go to college?

Yeah, I went to the University of Arizona. Then, I moved to San Diego afterward, where I worked at various restaurants, from Michelin Star to La Jolla Country Club and a high-end nightclub. 

I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I wanted to be involved in the industry. Working in all those different restaurants really rounded my experience of the type of clientele you’re going to work with, the type of food, or how the operations of a kitchen should be run. 

Then, the whole celebrity chef boom started happening. Being a chef and a celebrity chef in these restaurants started booming, especially in San Diego. So I worked with the best chefs, like chef Antonio Fisha. Working with them and seeing how they organize everything and operate a network really taught me, and I could use that experience to learn or do what I do now.

 

Were you in hospitality when you were in Arizona?

I always felt that that was kind of a hands-on type of thing. I never went to learn the industry, how to deal with people, or how to work as a team. You can’t really be taught that. You have to be hands-on and in the grind.

 

Did you go to San Diego looking for a nice restaurant?

No, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. I wanted just to be. Oh, you just wanted to be a beach bum? It was a good mean. Again, we lived right on the beach.

 

Did you work in restaurants around Pacific Beach?

I did. It was called Stingery. The club bought it out and turned it into a club. I worked for the AR Valentine, a Michelin-starred restaurant in a hotel called the Tory Pines Lodge, which is also home to the Tory Pines golf course. 

That whole program was absolutely top-of-the-line. If you’re going there, you’re going to learn a lot about proper service—proper dining, proper etiquette, the program, and teaching just the way you bus a table, serve a table, or even communicate with the guests.

It’s a privilege to be in that program, use that knowledge, and take it with me wherever I go.

 

You worked at the La Jolla Country Club too.

I did. It was a different type of status where it was a membership. I saw people like Philip Rivers, who was always there with his family. These are major players in the San Diego community, so it’s cool to see and be around that. 

It’s crazy to see how much money goes into that and what they’re getting in this top-of-the-line service that you’re providing. But if you enjoy being in that environment, it’s a wonderful learning experience.

What did you do after San Diego?

So I moved back and then opened my first restaurant. I was working in Sierra Madre. It was called T Boils. And they ended up wanting to consolidate just one location because that was two locations. 

I got it at a fairly good price. And I was 26 at the time.

With the knowledge I had learned and the knowledge my parents had, I was able to open the Pepper Tree Grill. I had that for nearly four years. It was right there on Sierra Madre Boulevard and Lima. It’s Nano’s cafe now.

 

So you ran Pepper Tree Grill until 2017?

It ran from 2012 until September 2016, and then I took a little break, which was nice. And again, as an owner, you’re just there nonstop. It’s just a constant. It’s on your mind 24/7, so I took a little break. 

I moved to Hermosa Beach, where I took the director of operations job at LAX, overseeing restaurants in terminal two. That was corporate, so it was a whole other side that I had not been experienced with or involved with.

That’s where I really learned to fine-tune the details of everything, not just management, because I had 120 employees below me, as well as eight managers, and I was learning the fine details of the numbers. You have to be able to delegate all the different tasks to all your managers and make sure that everything adds up in the end.

 

Did you enjoy the job at LAX?

Oh, yeah. I enjoyed it because I was learning so much more than I would have by myself at my own restaurant. I threw myself into the mix when I purchased that restaurant, and one of the biggest eye-openers is managing people. 

Before that, I worked with them and was great at all the different jobs. I knew how every job should be run, but one thing I didn’t do was manage, and that’s a whole other can of worms. When you’re dealing with people who have problems outside of work or people who don’t get along at work, you’re thinking that it’s on you or that you’re doing something wrong. But in reality, it’s just people are people, and they have outside issues.

Fortunately, I was able to make it work for four years. But for anyone that’s never had a management role of any kind, it’s difficult when you’re juggling people’s emotions and trying to run an operation as well, to make sure that everyone’s happy on the floor, as well as that you’re not just losing your butt in the business.

 

What did you do after LAX?

I did that for a couple of years and then moved back. I was living in Hermosa, then moved back to Monrovia. And the commute was awful from LA. 

I had to find something closer. And then, I ended up working for Twoheys. They were building a new restaurant, and it was called Twoheys Tavern. So I went there as a general manager and helped with the rebrand because when people thought Twoheys Tavern, they thought it was Twoheys, which is an older diner with just diner food. 

But this was not Twoheys at all. It was more high-end, with great cocktails and food. So, we changed it from Twoheys Tavern to Foothill.

That really separated the confusion. It isn’t Twoheys by any means. 

 

People who look at Lord Empanadas may think you just got lucky, but really, it’s a culmination of all the experience you’ve acquired.

Yeah. I mean, anybody can do any type of food, there’s no doubt about that. But there’s so much more behind it than execution and team management. Branding was a huge thing. When I created it, I wanted to keep the concept as simple as possible. We have great empanadas, but we’re also known for chimichurri. So when I was creating a logo, I wanted to be clear about what we do and to be good at that because everyone tries to do too many of one thing, and then they get lost in the shuffle. And I just wanted to be known for our empanadas and our chimichurri.

 

How big is your menu?

I have 20 different empanadas, but sandwich-wise, I have about eight different sandwiches, from tri-tip to posada and the chori pond. Then, we have the three dishes: a beef stroganoff, a chili verde, and a chicken pesto pasta. We also have a chef who does all my desserts for me in-house. We have flan, bread pudding, and cheesecake, but there isn’t a full dinner. 

People can come in and dine there, but really, all the sales are grab-and-go orders like huge platters of empanadas, or they do the sandwiches to go. 

When I first created the concept, there was going to be no dining. It was just going to be order, pick up and then be on your way.

But I had a few tables, so on the weekends, it just gets packed. So it was a good move, but it swayed just a little bit from the original concept, which was just grab-and-go, pandemic-proof. 

 

What is empanada in Argentina? Is it a meal? How is it looked at?

People eat it as a meal or a little late-night snack. There’s a huge division between fried and baked foods. We fry our empanadas and a lot of these other empanadas shops around town, or you go to Burbank or El Monte, they bake theirs, and then when you bake, it puffs up a little bit so it looks larger than what it really is, but it’s just poofing up the dough which they fill it. So we fry ours, but it’s fully packed with meat. Two is a solid meal, especially with a little side salad. 

 

What are Lord Empanadas Hours?

We open at 9:00 a.m. and close at 7:30 p.m. Everything is handmade. We fold all our empanadas. They’re cooked to order, not just sitting under a heat lamp.

When it does get busy, there is a long wait, and a lot of people order ahead of time to avoid that. They can just run and pay and get us, and then we’ll have it ready for them.

 

Where is Lord Empanadas located?

We’re located in Monrovia, just off of Myrtle. If you get off Myrtle on the freeway, we’re next to a shop called the Wizard of Bras. People recognize the Wizard of Bras.

 

You said that it’s not a full service restaurant

No. That’s exactly what I tried to create. You’ll see now that many of these up-and-coming places, either trending or new concepts, are avoiding the full-service concept because it’s too costly to have that much labor or people. 

Now, you can’t rely on everybody to come in and care as much as you do about your product or service. And good service, great service is tough to come by now. 

So you’re eliminating that middleman of giving your great product and having the limited great service interaction that you have with the cashier. But also, as the owner, I’m constantly present and there, making sure I’m interacting with the guests. 

Doing a full-service restaurant is significantly harder than the quick-service concept we’re doing. When you add the full-service, you’re relying a lot on your servers and a team versus having a small team, a reliable product, and your branding.

 

How did this concept start?

The Pandemic. It’s kind of always been there, but when the pandemic happened, you saw all these ghost kitchens popping up. You saw people experimenting with fried chicken pop-ups or smash burgers. So you see a lot of these same food items with different branding, trying to do what everyone’s trying to get recognition on Instagram. 

These Instagram foodie influencers now heavily move and sway the food population to these locations where it can change them overnight.

When LA Try Guy interviewed us on his TikTok and Instagram, we exploded overnight in January, especially after we were recognized by Yelp as one of the top 61 places to eat in the country.

I didn’t even know about it until the day the article launched. That happened this year at the end of January. My dad came in and showed me this article. Do you know you’re in this? I thought it was something that we won a while ago because he normally finds out things way later. 

So he showed it to me, and I had no idea what it was. And then, about ten minutes later, FedEx arrived with this huge congratulatory package from Yelp, saying that we were number 61 on their top 100 places to eat in 2023.

Literally, the next day, there was a line out the door, nonstop calling on the phone. We had to shut down two or three times a day because we could not keep up with demand.

 

Has that kept up?

Oh, yeah, it has kept up. So we’ve been very fortunate.

And that’s when all the Instagram foodie influencers started popping in. And fortunately, they gave us rave reviews. So it was just a constant. 

Since then, there has been an avalanche of business. We were great before that and then literally doubled overnight from the Yelp article. It’s stayed that way since then. Again, that’s why it’s so important to keep your team small but your product and quality high and be able to replicate, produce, and be consistent.

That’s why I don’t want to have multiple restaurants or Lord Empanadas. I want to have the one that’s constantly consistent. And we’ve kept that up. Even on Yelp, we’re still at a 4.7 rating with 430 reviews. 

 

Did you have to be social media savvy for your business?

Yeah, it’s difficult because I’m not one to constantly film, or I try my best to do it now, but even so, it’s difficult to keep up with that. When you’re busy at the restaurant, do.

 

Have you had a chance to look at all you’ve accomplished?

When I had my one-year anniversary, I was able to take a step back and acknowledge that we’ve done so much in such a short amount of time and with literally the same staff and people who have helped me. 

Before I had the restaurant, they were all there, and now we’re going on two years. And then, after just being in the LA Times recently and reflecting on how far we have come and how quickly it’s all happened, it’s a little surreal that it’s gone this far. Again, I’m very fortunate and feel very blessed that it’s made this far. 

 

Are empanadas from Argentina?

Every country seems to have its own version of empanadas. There are so many different flavors, even beef. They do sweet beef ones and more spicy beef ones. It depends on the region. But it seems now that every culture, every country has its own. 

Even Mexico has empanadas. So, where did their origins come from? Just because of the Argentine stereotype, I’ll say it started in Argentina.

 

You do 20 different types of empanadas. What’s the number one?

The original beef. The beef one is like the most traditional Argentine empanada, with raisins, a hard-boiled egg, diced olive, and potato. 

Outside of the beef one, our spinach and cheese and the spicy black bean empanada are some of our top sellers. 

When I first experimented with those two flavors, my dad and grandma did not want to try it. It was taboo to have anything other than the beef ones. Now, spinach and cheese are two of my dad’s favorites. But we get a lot of heat from purists or people who are very traditional in everything they do. And you can’t just be traditional. You have to adventure out and experiment and be outside the box to be able to, again, gain traction like we did.

We have a pizza one, a mushroom and swiss, and we experimented with other Mexican flavors like spicy asada and apastor empanadas. But the traditional beef stands strong as our number one top seller.

 

You have dessert ones too right?

Right. So the chef who makes all my flan and bread pudding also does our apple pie filling. We do a cheesecake one and a Nutella banana one as well. 

We use Twoheys bittersweet fudge to put on top of our Nutella one.

We also have breakfast ones, with eggs, cheese, and potato, as well as bacon, chorizo, ham, or sausage. It comes with our hot sauce. 

 

Thank you for coming today. Tell everyone how they can find you.

They can visit Lord Empanadas at 1540 S Myrtle Ave, Monrovia, CA 91016. We’re just south of the freeway, right there with the big empanada in the sky and the billboard.

Picture of Ryan Lopez

Ryan Lopez

Twoheys: I always went to their old location and was fortunate to work with their family. Their new location is in South Pasadena. It’s just absolutely phenomenal. I love Twoheys.

Mijares: It is a staple in Pasadena, and it’s on Pasadena Ave right before the freeway. 

Hop Secret Brewery in Monrovia. They have amazing beer. Chris and Kai are the owners. They’re phenomenal owners and just great people to be around.