Salsa, Goats, & Empanadas
Nashville’s Daniel Yarzagaray is bringing Colombian culture to Music City with his experiential food truck, Chivanada.
Ah, Millennials. You know how we are. Changing the way culture is consumed and created, killing chain restaurants, constantly taking photos and snaps, and forever swiping left or right…. Speaking of swiping — according to my friends, I am one of the rare few who ignores the pictures on Bumble and goes straight to the biography. Fortunately for all of you, this is exactly what I was doing when I came across “Daniel.” Cynicism having already set in that day, I prepared to roll my eyes and swipe left while scrolling down — but then, my heart stopped. His profile was promoting his food truck, which sold empanadas.
Anyone who knows me knows my greatest weakness is pasta or pastries stuffed with pretty much anything, either savory or sweet. Want me to loan you a book? Cook me some tortellini. Want me to get out of bed at an early hour and still be nice to you? Buy me a custard-filled long john donut. Don’t even get me started on my reaction to toasted ravioli.
Any thoughts of changing my single lady status, much less swiping, went out the window. I closed Bumble and Googled “Chivanada” which is how I found out that the truck would be at Marathon Village the next day. I had no choice; I had to follow my heart and go.
Salsa music echoed off the walls of the old Marathon car factory as I walked up to the food truck. I felt extraordinarily awkward, realizing I hadn’t paid enough attention on Bumble to know what the owner of the truck looked like, not to mention I couldn’t remember what direction, if any, I had swiped after getting the information I needed. I was vague with the man in the service window over how I had heard about them, and then asked what he suggested I try. “The lentil empanada, that’s my favorite!” Skeptically, I ordered a lentil empanada as well as a chicken one.
The chicken empanada was delicious and I devoured it eagerly, but hesitated over the lentil empanada. Upon finally taking a tentative bite, that first burst of flavor caused me to realize that this was the love I had been waiting for all my life: refried lentils stuffed into a fried pastry.
Sorry, Toasted Ravioli.
Sitting down with 28 year old Nashville native Daniel Yarzagaray at Humphrey’s Street Coffee in early December, he told me the concept for Chivanada was only developed seventeen months before their opening in August of 2018.
“I had just come back from a trip to Colombia and visited my grandmother down there, and I came back with a lot of inspiration. I had this idea of bringing back that feeling that I had down in Colombia, and I figured it had to be a combination of things. It had to be the food, the art, and dance,” he said. “Food trucks are just about food here in Nashville, but I wanted to do one that was more than that — one that was a fully sensory experience.”
After a discussion with his brother and business partner, Kai, they decided this would best be done by modeling their food truck after traditional Columbian art buses, called Chivas. These brightly painted wooden buses are common forms of public transportation in rural Colombia.
Daniel explained further, “They roam the countryside. Chiva means ‘goat’ in Spanish, and we pictured a chiva that would serve empanadas — that’s how we came up with the name Chivanada.” After developing the concept and the name, they acquired an investor and began researching how to convert a bus into a legally usable food truck. It was a struggle to get everything working, but in the end, what took the most time was the art.
I asked him if he considered himself an artist. “I’m a vocalist. I sing some traditional Colombian genres, some classical and operatic, in English and Italian. I was working on an EP while launching the food truck — didn’t quite finish the EP, although I’d still like to do that at some point.” Daniel paused thoughtfully. “So yes, I am a creator, but my brother’s really the artist. I knew that he could knock the art part out of the park.”
“It’s a huge mural. Kai started painting in October last year, and didn’t finish until August this year. He had 100% creative control. We did work on some things together. In terms of the wording on the bus, I helped fill in some of the blanks. There’s a phrase on the bus that says ‘se me acabo las ideas’ which means ‘I’ve run out of ideas’ and it was kind of a joke because — if you translate all the words, it’s every big piece of Colombian culture, especially coastal. The artists, the musicians, the writers, the foods, even our family members are on there. It’s all our heritage that’s on this project.”
“You can always view challenges as an obstacle, but they’re also an opportunity.”
The importance of family in the creation of this food truck was further highlighted when I asked Daniel about who inspires him to continue moving in the direction he is.
“I think a lot of it was my grandfather. My grandfather was a vocalist, so he taught me a lot of our music. When I was two years old, he started teaching me these songs.” He continued passionately, “He was a really avid promoter of Colombia — he was a former politician in Colombia, and he taught me a lot of value and his ethics and the culture. My family inspires me — my mom, my dad, they’re huge! They made an effort to hold on to this culture. My grandparents moved here in the 60s, so I’m third generation. It would have been really easy to let go of that and acclimate to American culture — which they did to a degree, but they also made an effort to retain and hold on to what was distinctively Colombian, our heritage. I really look up to them and respect them for that because it’s a gift.”
“Do you think Nashville was a good place to start your food truck?” I asked.
“It would have been easier in Miami,” Daniel says emphatically. “It’s part of the culture. Here, there’s a lot more challenges culturally, because you’re trying to introduce a kind of food that no one’s ever experienced before. You couldn’t do that in Miami. So in one sense, this is better. It’s all about perspective. You can always view challenges as ‘oh, this is an obstacle’ but it is also an opportunity. In Miami, they’ve experienced all this stuff already, but in Nashville there’s the chance to give it to them for the first time.”
“I really enjoy the process of explaining to people what this food is, it’s half the reason I did this — to acclimate people to Colombian culture, explain to them what this is that I grew up with. It’s also hilarious because you get the occasional…” Daniel paused to affect a perfect southern drawl, “Is this a taco truck? Do y’all have rice and beans?”
Despite the cultural differences, Chivanada has been well accepted by the community in Nashville. After only four months of operation, the food truck is bringing in enough money that Daniel & Kai are able to pay themselves and the bills. Their next goal is to make a profit, and eventually expand into a brick and mortar quick-service and delivery location.
“It’s super inspiring to see how the Nashville food scene is exploding. Five years ago, I could never have done this and gotten the same reception that we’re getting now because there’s just this whole culture around food that didn’t exist in Nashville 5 years ago. A lot of people miss Old Nashville. I don’t miss it that much because New Nashville actually understands what I and other creators are doing. Old Nashville never would have understood.”
“Growing up, Sunday Brunch was time to turn on Salsa music and dance in the kitchen while making empanadas — it was a family affair.”
Before deciding to educate others on the culture he grew up with, Daniel spent six years taking online classes to get a business degree, and supported himself that entire time by working at a garden center in Murfreesboro.
While he’s glad he learned the basics with his degree, he says that even with a master’s degree, you can’t fully comprehend what goes into starting a business. “You’ve just got to do it. You have to experience what it’s like to start a business, no one can teach you that.”
I was beginning to think there’s nothing this guy doesn’t know how to do, until we got to the subject of Salsa music and dance. Chivanada always has a specially curated Spotify playlist of Colombian music playing through speakers on the bus, as well as a portable dance floor that they set up at some events. If you watch their stories on Instagram, you can see customers dancing with empanadas in hand. I asked if Daniel teaches people how to dance the Salsa, and he laughed.
“I wish! I’m actually a horrible dancer and am taking salsa lessons myself right now. I’m the one Colombian who can’t dance. I’m figuring it out, but…” he trails off, smiling ruefully.
“The process of starting a business was really enjoyable for me. I don’t know if it’s enjoyable for everyone, but I love it. It’s basically putting together a bunch of pieces of a puzzle.”
For now, we want to just stay committed to this,” Daniel told me. “Both of us have had a lot of trouble staying focused — like a lot of creative folks, we have sixteen things going at one time. We finally decided to actually get something done and narrow the focus down to one thing. That’s where we’re at right now.”
“When you bring it in for even just a small amount of time, the focus opens up other opportunities.” This was proven when local bars and taprooms began reaching out to Chivanada in order to purchase empanadas wholesale — something they never expected, but has been a major part of their sales so far.
Part of narrowing their focus originally included the decision to only sell empanadas at first. “An empanada can be anything. You can put any kind of filling inside it. It gave us a great range of culinary possibilities.”
Then Daniel told me the most exciting fact of the afternoon. “It seems like the lentil empanada, which has been a slow burn success, is something we created. Kai had this idea of creating a vegetarian empanada that tastes good, and decided to try a refried lentil inside an empanada.” Vegetarian customers especially are ecstatic over the lentil empanada, and the brothers now consider it their favorite recipe.
So far, Daniel has been happy with the reaction to Chivanada. “I grew up with empanadas for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. For us, Sunday Brunch was time to turn on Salsa music and dance in the kitchen while making empanadas — it was a family affair. It’s always had that nostalgic connection, empanadas were a part of that whole cultural experience I wanted to provide. As long as customers get to experience a bit of that and have good food, I’m happy.”
“I’ll feel like I succeeded.”
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*All photographs taken by Taralei