When Life Gives You Lemons, Make Empanadas!
Helms College Graduate Making an Impact and Creating Jobs with her new Restaurant
Chef entrepreneur Aracelis Hernandez usually spends a lot of time in the spring at her booth at the Augusta Market. But with the COVID-19 pandemic delaying the opening of the market, Hernandez found herself without a significant revenue source or a place to create and serve her Latin fusion cuisine.
She worked out a partnership agreement with T.J. Simmons, who owns a commissary kitchen on Riverwatch Parkway in Augusta and opened The Crazy Empanada for take-out orders on May 11.
“I started with so little, I was so scared,” said Hernandez, whose nickname is Nuni. “The (Augusta) Market didn’t open and I said, ‘Let me try this and see.’ We went one day. Then two days. Three days. And the fourth day it blew up, and it’s been crazy since then.”
Hernandez said her nephew Julius Staples, who works the market booth with her, encouraged her to move forward with the storefront venture. Money was tight and she was nervous, but he reminded her they’d never know if they could make it if they didn’t try.
Now Hernandez, who earned her A.S. degree in Culinary Arts from Helms College in 2019, has a staff of 10, including fellow Helms graduates Yineska Hernandez Diaz and Brittnee Eidson.
Opening The Crazy Empanada storefront is the most recent turn in a journey that has had some low points along the way. Hernandez, who has degrees in journalism and business management, fought her way back from the brink of suicide to create the life she has today.
“I was in another place that I don’t wish anybody to be in,” she says, her sunny demeanor temporarily clouded as tears come to her eyes. “I was divorced. I lost everything. My husband left me with nothing. I was asking, ‘What the hell happened to you?’ I was depressed for I don’t know how long. I didn’t believe in myself for a long time. My confidence was gone. I was even homeless.”
She had an epiphany that propelled her forward and started her on her current path.
“I said one day, ‘What’s up with you, Nuni? Okay girl, come on. Wake up! Let’s go!’” She went to Puerto Rico, where she was born, and visited places she loved while growing up there. “I said, ‘You need to care about Nuni right now, and your family, and what you want to do with your future.’”
Having worked in the food and beverage industry while pursuing other educational and career endeavors, she decided to pursue a path of becoming a chef and attend Johnson and Wales culinary school in Charleston. But upon returning home to Augusta, she dropped in at Helms College to visit a friend who worked in the office.
“I saw the hat,” she said of the college’s promotional materials featuring a chef’s hat. “I looked at the way it was set up and realized the same thing they have over at Johnson and Wales, we have it right here, even a little bit better. I applied the same day and I was so happy.”
Her time at Helms College was more than just training for her career. It was the catalyst for her to find her confidence, her purpose and her voice.
“Because I had been in a very dark place, being at Helms College doing what I love, it helped me mentally to become better each day to see I was worth something,” she said. “It changed my life. The instructors, especially Chef Kristina Dahl and Chef Colleen Garcia, changed my perspective of being who I wanted to be as a chef. They helped me the best chef I can be.”