After over 20 years studying the art of empanada assembly, Erica Sanders can construct the treats in a flash. Courtesy: 9 Julio Empanada Kitchen

9 Julio Empanada Kitchen
5239 Claremont Ave. (near Clarke Street), Oakland
Opening June 2022

Erica Sanders took a six-month food journey in 2011, traveling across the United States and South America. The Bay Area native was trying to make a decision about her future: Should she stay in Minnesota at her secure corporate job or take a leap of faith, move back to California, and start her own empanada business? Eleven years later, the choice she made is almost ready to pay off, and her new restaurant, 9 Julio Empanada Kitchen, will open this June in North Oakland.

“9 Julio’s claim to fame is two continents, seven countries and 55,000 miles of the most delicious research I’ve ever done,” Sanders joked. “It was really a way for me to figure out what makes a great empanada.”

Sanders first fell in love with the crispy golden crescent-shaped pastry during a Spanish language immersion program in Costa Rica. Since that trip in 2000, she was hooked on the dish, which is ubiquitous across South and Central America but has roots in 1500s-era Spain. Despite its popularity elsewhere, it was hard to find empanadas in her then-home of Minneapolis. “It quickly shifted from if I want empanadas, there’s only so many restaurants I’m going to find them, and that’s when I started making them myself.”

“I started doing little tastings for friends and family. I’d bring empanadas to work. We’d have dinner parties where I’d have people try the empanadas. It really just became a side passion,” Sanders said.

9 Julio founder Erica Sanders in the kitchen. Courtesy: 9 Julio Empanada Kitchen

Ten years after her first empanada, she enrolled in cooking classes in Buenos Aires and at the Culinary Institute of America in New York to see if she could turn that side project into a career. “I wanted to hone my recipes and decide to continue making empanadas for fun, or is this something I want to do as a profession?” The classes helped make up her mind, and in 2012, she gave up the corporate grind and moved to the Bay Area to launch 9 Julio.

The name has significant meaning to her career pivot. “I was walking down Avenida Nueve de Julio in Buenos Aires. It’s a major thoroughfare in a contemporary urban city with historic landmarks and cultures coming together,” Sanders said. “It reminded me of Oakland. Also, Nueve de Julio, July 9th, is Argentina’s Independence Day, and for me, it was my personal independence from corporate America.”

Sanders started small, renting a space in a commercial kitchen and selling her handcrafted empanadas at the Hayward and Montclair farmer’s markets and the antique fair in Alameda. Those markets were an excellent way for Sanders to get the food in people’s hands that weren’t friends and family, get feedback, and build recipes. 

As 9 Julio’s word of mouth from loyal customers spread, she scaled up and focused on catering and mobile delivery. But as the business grew, so did the challenge and constraint of a shared kitchen space. Sanders started looking for a permanent location in 2017, and two years later, she found one, using nonprofit organization Kiva to crowdfund a loan within two weeks.

The funds went to construction costs, but Sanders said the campaign paid off in another way: It confirmed that people were interested in 9 Julio as a business and wanted her to succeed.

Kitchen equipment was on order in February 2020, with a grand opening slated for summer. Then in March, the pandemic hit. Sanders used the pause to understand how people’s eating habits were changing and how to better serve their needs. “Our primary seating was a communal eating concept with big family-style tables. So, we had to really go back to the drawing board,” she said. 

Given the success of the first Kiva campaign, which by then she had repaid, Sanders applied for another loan in January specifically to create outdoor seating and a takeout window. Again, she was amazed to fund her full amount in under two days.

9 Julio’s humita empanada packs in creamy corn, peppers and cheese. Courtesy: 9 Julio Empanada Kitchen

Diners at 9 Julio can expect a fast, casual experience, but Sanders emphasizes that they’ll be sitting down for a meal, not just a snack that was under a heat lamp. Every empanada will be baked fresh and with seasonal produce, from a menu based in over 25 different recipes. There will be savory empanadas from around the world, like a cuban picadillo empanada, one with Jamaican beef, and another made with chicken salsa verde. Other offerings include chimichurri beef with onions, carrots, and potatoes; wild mushrooms and caramelized onions; or chorizo sausage, manchego cheese, and Yukon gold potatoes.

On the dessert side, watch for sweet potatoes spiced with brown sugar and cinnamon and fresh apples with salted dulce de leche. In the summer, Sanders hopes to serve up a lemon blackberry empanada, too.

The new kitchen space allows Sanders and her staff to prepare other things, so expect 9 Julio’s menu to expand and evolve over time.

“Imagine a dinner for four where you get roasted Peruvian chicken, our family-style salads, and a side dish,” Sanders said of a possible dinner meal kit option. Another idea, an empanada take-and-bake option, could be “a great way for families to enjoy our food any time.”

As the finishing touches on the restaurant reach the home stretch, Sanders looks forward to hiring helping hands. “As an entrepreneur, I wear many hats, from delivery driver to catering manager, chef, and everything in between. Now, the goal is to take myself out of so many different pieces.”

Want a peek at 9 Julio’s empanadas? Watch for them at Taste of Temescal, which is on March 29 from 6-9 p.m.