World Empanadas, a tiny, pick-up only restaurant, opened on Victory Boulevard, in an unlikely spot.
Patrons walked past a liquor store, into a 400-square-foot room, to pick up or place an order for empanadas.
For the uninitiated, empanadas are breaded pastries baked or sometimes fried, and stuffed with a variety of ingredients, including meat, cheese or vegetables. They are thought to have originated in Spain, and are common to Latin America, Portugal and the Caribbean, among other places.
“My son is a chef,” said Rosalia “Lia” Hirtz. “When he graduated from culinary school, I thought, ‘Hey do you want to do this?’ Everything just happened. The liquor store gave us a few months free rent.”
Hirtz, her two sons and husband, who hails from Argentina, opened World Empanadas in May 2012. Hirtz is from Mexico and came to the U.S. when she was six.
By November 2014, the demand for their empanadas had grown such that Hirtz was transporting the Argentine staple in warmers to a second, larger location on Magnolia Boulevard.
The Magnolia location did not have a full kitchen, and there was only a permit for it to operate as a retail location. By February, the family closed the Magnolia shop to renovate it and have a fully-functioning restaurant.
“It was too crazy,” Hirtz said of transporting the food from one site to the other.
After selecting a contractor, creating plans and taking them to the city for approval, and fixing what the contractor initially installed incorrectly, the plans were approved, Hirtz said.
Her contractor was informed that before opening, the restaurant would need to create one handicap parking spot, leaving her with a total of four parking spots, Hirtz said.
“I did not have a business in the food industry before, I was very naive,” Hirtz said. “I figured the contractor had done all that was needed.”
Hirtz said the last step in the process for them was a license from the Los Angeles County Department of Health, and on May 5, World Empanadas was open for business again.
“People start coming, it’s great,” Hirtz said.
Then, in June, the business received some news.
“Code enforcement said there was a violation, and we had to remove all the seating and tables in four days,” Hirtz said. “We were not in compliance.”
World Empanadas apparently needed 17 parking spots, based on the size of the restaurant. Hirtz was told she could fill out additional paperwork for a special permit to operate as is.
It cost her about $1050.
Hirtz removed all the tables and chairs, except for one table that is pushed up against a wall, where she discusses catering needs with clients.
All the people that came in for lunch, all the studio employees who came in and doodled on the eatery’s chalkboards were lost when the seating was removed, Hirtz said.
“What about the front street?” Hirtz said about additional parking. “This is not a sit-down place where you sit for hours. It’s a quick lunch, and then people leave.”
The city process is intimidating for the average person, Hirtz said, adding that she spent about $70,000 to comply with all of the necessary city codes.
“I’m not sure if it’s only Burbank, but I don’t know that I would do this again,” she said. “There is not a clear road map. The city should talk to business owners, make sure nobody takes advantage of them. Make the process easier and friendlier.”
Now that the city has received Hirtz’s paperwork, neighboring businesses within 1,000 feet of World Empanadas will have an opportunity to comment on the special permit the restaurant may be granted. Hirtz could have an answer as to whether she may install tables and chairs by mid October.
While she acknowledges the learning curve with the contractor, Hirtz said she is really upset that the process has taken this long.
“I felt the city didn’t care if I opened a business here or not,” Hirtz said.
Marissa Minor, an economic development analyst in the city’s economic development department, said that while classes are not offered to new business owners or those wanting to start a business, her department does meet with interested business owners and property managers individually. They are then taken to the permitting counter, and upstairs to licenses and code, and walked through the entire process. Anyone can receive those services by contacting the department, she added.
Hirtz was not aware of any assistance for business owners, and said she felt it was extremely difficult to get help with what she needed.
Carol Barrett, assistant director of the planning division, said last week the frustrations Hirtz experienced were due to paperwork being filed incorrectly.
“Here’s what I understand: she filled out an application for a business, identified it as carry out and opened the business with tables and chairs,” Barrett said. “There was a complaint to the city about this. We have a process that requires notification of neighbors in order to grant approval for a business to open if they don’t have the parking that code requires and they are a small business. There are fees associated with that. I think [Hirtz] was not happy with how that process worked.”
The city does not plan to take any enforcement action since Hirtz has applied for what the city calls an Administrative Use Permit, Barrett said.
“We are happy to work with people,” Barrett said. “Not everyone understands the system.”
Indicating the restaurant would be carry out, without any tables and chairs, and then opening with tables and chairs is significant, as that is part of how the city determines how much parking is needed, Barrett said.
“I don’t think there was any malevolence, it was just a misunderstanding,” Barrett said. “We are working with the applicant to make it possible to have tables and chairs.”
Hirtz said that yes, she originally indicated the restaurant would be carry out, and that is why she was transporting empanadas from the Victory location to the larger, more desirable location on Magnolia. When that became too difficult, Hirtz said they went back to the city and submitted plans for a restaurant with a full kitchen.
“We submitted the plans and thought since we were turning it into a restaurant with a full kitchen, everything was in order,” Hirtz said. “Nobody said anything about seating and parking.”
Although the city did mention the handicap parking, Hirtz said.
“I felt we could have avoided all this,” Hirtz said. “Yes, it was my own ignorance that we didn’t file differently, but no one at the city mentioned it to us [at the time].”
When asked why Hirtz wasn’t informed about the need for 17 parking spots when she was informed about the handicap parking, Barrett said: “I can’t answer why someone in the city who reviewed the parking plan can’t give information on zoning. I wouldn’t know about that.”
Barrett said the “logical thing to do” was for the owner to contact the city when she changed her mind about how she was going to run the business.
Initially Barrett said the public works department would have made the determination about the handicap parking, and that public works doesn’t address zoning issues.
“You can talk to the director of public works about what they’re supposed to do,” Barrett said, adding that in her 40 years of experience, public works doesn’t discuss zoning.
Barrett amended her statement to say that if the parking is located in the back alley, then it would be the responsibility of public works. If the parking is in the back, accessed by the alley, that would have been licenses and codes that made the determination about handicap parking.
In that case, would Barrett concede the process could be confusing to new business owners?
“I would say a lot of people went through this process and were not confused about it,” Barrett said. “In the view of this business owner, she is frustrated by how this turned out. A lot of others came in, in similar circumstances, and it was clear and they worked on it, and they’re open today, and they’re successful.”
Barrett added: “She has a certain perspective; she’s been talking to a lot of people about her perspective.”
Customers have asked Hirtz if they are able to sit at the table, and what happened to the other tables and chairs, and Hirtz said she’s had to explain her situation.
“We have gotten a lot of community support,” Hirtz said, adding that phone orders and catering requests have picked up, and that many people walk to the restaurant from the surrounding neighborhood.
Hirtz gave the city a document with 300 signatures that support their request for seating when she submitted her permit in June. An online petition also has signatures, and Hirtz said there are more signatures at the restaurant that she has not submitted.
The idea originated with one of her regulars, Hirtz said.
As she waits, Hirtz is also looking into installing a bike rack. Some of her roughly 1,300 Facebook followers may appreciate that.