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Starting a business during a pandemic might seem like a daunting task, but for professional model and angel investor Emma Hernan, when others saw lockdown, she saw opportunity. Hernan is the CEO of Emma Leigh & Co. Brands, which has its headquarters in Hingham. Hernan’s grandfather, Gerry McAdams, founded Yankee Trader Seafood in 1994, which many locals will recognize as a locally owned, third-generation family business.

Hernan found herself with time on her hands at the start of the pandemic. She was cooking a lot, thinking about healthy recipes and experimenting in the kitchen with new flavors. What might have seemed implausible to some was actually an ingenious idea—with so many people at home, Hernan thought the time for starting a vegan frozen food company was actually quite perfect. 

Combining her talent for healthy and delicious cooking with her entrepreneurial skills, Hernan was able to grow a business during much of the Covid-19 quarantine. Given the circumstances around the world at the time, Hernan knew if she was to be successful it had to come down to taste. “With so many frozen food options, I had to be really focused on the recipes,” she explains. “Once I had those nailed down, it was about connecting with buyers at supermarkets. I knew some buyers and had existing relationships from my work with Yankee Trader who were willing to give me a chance.” 

Hernan has a trip to Puerto Rico to thank for her love of empanadas. “I was in Puerto Rico for a modeling job and ate empanadas the entire trip, and my love for them stayed with me. They are fun to eat and the filling options are so versatile. For me, a frozen pizza line was not going to align with my values of being plant based, and with the empanadas, I could make something healthy and delicious in a variety of flavors,” explains Hernan. 

Even so, a successful and sustained presence in the frozen food space is no easy feat (a cursory walk down the frozen food aisle of any grocery store will tell you that). Put simply, there is no shortage of frozen food choices. But Hernan believed in her idea that when it came to vegan frozen foods, specifically empanadas, there was a shortage. Why? They are easy to cook, are healthy and delicious—and not all over the market. “The most inexperienced kitchen chef cannot mess these up and they align perfectly with a plant-based diet or those wanting an easy entry into plant-based foods,” says Hernan. 

When Hernan landed a deal with Beyond Meat for the filling of her empanadas and started selling them on QVC, she was thrilled, not only because of the exciting opportunities these deals bring for her company, but also because of the visibility it gives the brand and the accessibility it provides to consumers. “For me, having people understand that a keto recipe or a vegan recipe is not only acceptable, but can be as delicious as a traditional recipe, is so important. It’s really exciting to be a woman-owned business, where I am able to put my values and what I feel passionate about at the forefront,” says Hernan. 

Whether you choose to pop them in the oven or cook them in an air fryer, the empanadas go from frozen to ready to eat in about ten minutes. Hernan’s original flavor is the beef empanada and her expanded line now includes sausage, egg and cheese (made with Beyond Meat and Just Egg) as well as cheeseburger, in addition to dessert flavors including cinnamon bun and other limited-edition flavors like birthday cake and cookies & cream, with more in development. 

The Emma Leigh and Co. line also includes keto-friendly cauliflower crab cakes which are made with jumbo lump blue crab meat, peppers, onions, and spices, which are also sold on QVC and can also be ordered online. Locally, Emma Leigh & Co. empanadas can be found in grocers on the North Shore in Peabody, Danvers, and Salem, with more locations in the works.    

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