If you’ve ever dined at La Empanada Loca on North Dixie Highway in Oakland Park, it’s more than likely that owner William Martinez or a member of his staff has gone out of their way to make you feel like you’re a part of the family.
It’s something he prides himself on, actually.
“I think everyone who comes in here feels at home,” he said. “We’re like family here. That’s what makes my place special. Our waiters ask all of our customers about their own families. If you come in here, everyone gets a kiss. I’m not here to be rich. I know god has blessed me with this restaurant. I won’t be able to work as hard forever.”
After all, Martinez knows what it’s like to have nothing.
He grew up in the Bronx, the youngest of six children. They were raised by a single mother, and an absentee one at that. “I learned how to cook at a young age. I had to fend for myself,” he explained. “My mom would cook on Sunday’s. That was our time. I would cook with her. I just fell in love with the kitchen.”
It comes as no surprise, Martinez said, that he’s seen a number of celebrities come through the restaurant’s front doors. Elizabeth Rodriguez of Orange is the New Black, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, and New York Yankees player Gary Sanchez have all spent time dining at La Empanada Loca: “If my waiters don’t tell me, I don’t even know who is here. I can’t recognize people,” Martinez confessed.
He said Sotomayor’s mother lives in Margate and is a regular at the restaurant. Her secretary called the restaurant one day and said she wanted to come in with members of her cabinet. At the time, the restaurant was closed on Tuesday’s, so she came in then. “Her secret service came in a week before the visit to sweep the restaurant, and that’s when I really believed it,” he said.
Owning a successful restaurant wasn’t always in the cards for Martinez, however. As an adult, Martinez landed a job in corporate America but after 9/11, he lost his job. He decided to move to Tampa, and he started cleaning houses.
He was cleaning houses for all different kinds of people, including those who were extremely wealthy. But it’s something that he never let phase him. Every house he stepped through received the same treatment.
I always try to treat everyone with respect, no matter who he or she is.
He said he was cleaning a house for a friend of a friend who had been extremely successful. He happened to run into his client out at a bar one night and the client made a scene in front of everyone, including making jokes about Martinez being his housecleaner: “I was humiliated.”
That’s when he decided to make a change and open a restaurant. “The food is good. I stand behind my products. I took a lot of time perfecting my recipes. If you love what you do, it’s not work. That comes out in your work,” he said.
His biggest supporter, he said, is his mother. She lives on the west coast of Florida now: “She’s very proud. The only thing she is concerned about is I work a lot. I don’t get to see her as much as either of us would like.”
At the end of the day, he hopes to show people that anything is possible.
“I want anyone who got out of the Bronx and the welfare system, you can do this. If I did it, you can do it,” he said. “Nothing happens by chance. I always wanted a restaurant, but it hadn’t happened. I thought it wasn’t my time.”
Ultimately, he said, it’s about people. At the end of every night at the restaurant, he would take all the leftovers from the restaurant, wrap them up and bring them to the homeless people living in downtown Ft. Lauderdale. But he had to stop because he was fined by the police.
My main purpose in life is to make everyone happy. I’m everyone’s equal. I want everyone to feel the same. I opened this restaurant with $4 in the bank. I made $287 that first day. I went home and cried. I’m blessed and happy.
The restaurant is open seven days a week and is located at 4820 North Dixie Highway in Oakland Park.
Katina Caraganis is a Massachusetts native and has called South Florida home since 2015. She graduated college with a degree in communication studies and has received numerous writing awards during her tenure in journalism. When she’s not working for an online pet supply retailer, she spends her time training for a half-marathon in March and studying to become a certified nutrition coach.
After graduating from the city’s Local Government Academy, or LGA, in 2010, Pat