NOSH Pitch Slam 10: Empanada Maker Cocina 54 Crowned Champion

Erin Cabrey

Frozen empanada brand Cocina 54 came out victorious at NOSH Pitch Slam 10 as the judges believed the brand’s convenient and authentic take on the Latin American staple will help it become a standout in the freezer aisle.

Presented by 301. Inc, the two-part virtual pitch competition began on Monday with a field of 12 brands presenting their two-minute pitches to the judges, who then picked the six finalists.

Today’s finalists included seed-based food brand Beyond The Equator, superfood popsicle maker Honey Child, vegetable protein mix brand Down to Cook, pasture-raised pork snack maker Singing Pastures and sprouted nut brand Daily Crunch. Each presented five-minute pitches followed by feedback from and live Q&A with judges. As the winner, Cocina 54 will receive an advertising package with NOSH valued at $10,000 along with the coveted Pitch Slam trophy.

Judges included John Haugen, founder and managing director at 301 Inc.; Elly Truesdell, partner at Almanac Insights; Jackie Dunklau, founder/principal at Aria Growth Partners; and NOSH reporter Erin Cabrey.

Founded in 2017, Austin, Texas-based Cocina 54 aims to create a “new generation” of better-for-you Latin American foods, according to founder Cecilia Panichelli. The company stays true to its Argentinian roots with authentic flavors and packaging design inspired by an Argentinian painting technique called Filete Porteño.

Cocina 54 is capitalizing on the fast-growing frozen food segment and consumers’ increasing interest in international flavors, both trends which have been accelerated by the pandemic. Cocina 54’s four SKU line of gluten-free empanadas are currently sold in the freezer aisle at select locations of retailers such as Walmart, Wegmans, H-E-B and Fred Meyer, as well as through Amazon.

The judges were impressed by the flavors and convenience of the frozen, pre-baked empanadas, which can be prepared in the microwave or oven. The brand has reached profitability without taking any outside funding, which Haugen noted was a promising element for a startup, along with Cocina 54’s scalable business model. Panichelli’s previous CPG experience, which includes roles at Nestlé and barbecue sauce maker Stubb’s, also made the brand attractive from an investment perspective, Truesdell said.

Looking ahead, Panichelli said she sees the brand growing into a broader platform for Latin American foods, with the ultimate goal of becoming “a Goya for the millennial customer.” While line extensions in the short term will remain in the frozen category, Panichelli said the brand also has plans to eventually launch within center store. The brand also plans to raise funding this year, Panichelli said.

“We definitely will be interested in talking to anyone that would love to be part of an incredible team of talented individuals that have lots of passion, are very scrappy, and really want to bring a product that is better-for-you and share our history,” she said.

Cocina 54 joins past Pitch Slam winners including keto-friendly donut maker Elite Sweets, frozen appetizer brand Savorly, Know Brainer keto marshmallows, Beckon lactose-free ice cream, Creation Nation protein bar mixes, Watermelon Road dried fruit jerky and Tribali grass-fed frozen meat patties.