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The power of positive thinking, one empanada at a time

Hernan Moyano (MBA '02) inside the Durham location of Makus Empanadas.

The first time Hernan Moyano (MBA ’02) made a batch of 60 ham-and-cheese empanadas, 55 of them exploded.

“When cheese is involved, ‘explosion’ means all over the place,” says Moyano. “We were working in a kitchen also used by several food trucks and everyone said, ‘These guys are never going to make it. They can’t do it.’”

So Moyano ignored the 55 that failed spectacularly and focused on the five that worked.

The next day, 50 exploded. Five days later, he was invited to a house party and brought along two dozen pork empanadas he managed to make presentable. Soon after, there was the first-ever order — for 400 baked empanadas.

In 2014, Moyano, his brother, Santiago, and best friend, Ricky Yofre, knew very little about making empanadas and even less about the food industry. Today, Makus Empanadas has a strong presence in the Triangle.

Starting as a catering company, Makus (pronounced “make us”) has a location in Durham and two in Raleigh. It has served empanadas in such high-profile spots as Kenan Memorial Stadium, the Dean E. Smith Center, Duke University Hospital, Durham Bulls Athletic Park and PNC Arena.

Hernan Moyano (MBA '02) inside the Durham location of Makus Empanadas.

Hernan Moyano (MBA ’02) at the Durham restaurant he co-founded with his brother and his best friend

Catering is still a big part of Makus’ success — and so is UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School. Moyano is frequently seen delivering his empanadas to his alma mater for special events, class reunions, club meetings and student presentations. These are the trips he loves to make.

“I have no problem going to UNC Kenan-Flagler with a cooler and delivering food myself,” he says. “People may think, ‘But wait. You went to business school and now you’re delivering food.’ Believe, me I’ve heard it all. If they feel that way, they are getting it wrong.

“Throughout my career, I was involved in multimillion-dollar transactions, and still nothing makes me happier than when a customer leaves a restaurant, turns around and compliments our food and thanks us for it.

Going to make it

In a fast-casual dining world of sameness, Makus is a uniquely successful outlier.

Moyano and his partners introduced the empanadas they ate every day growing up in Buenos Aires, Argentina, to a place where many had never heard of the food let alone tried it. Powered by consistently positive word of mouth and Moyano’s keenly creative business sense, Makus has seen growth every year for the nine years it has been open.

Makus has evolved over the years to include vegetarian, dairy-free and gluten-free options. He’s now focusing on frozen empanadas which could mean a presence in hundreds of retail stores nationwide.

“We are always thinking about new things to do or better ways to do what we already do,” Moyano says. “We were and still are learning constantly. We’ve been learning from the beginning.”

And he learned a lot about business strategy while in UNC Kenan-Flagler’s Full-Time MBA Program. Finance classes with Professor Jennifer Conrad showed him he had much to learn even though he had nearly a decade of experience in investment.

“Throughout my career, I was involved in multimillion-dollar transactions, and still nothing makes me happier than when a customer leaves a restaurant, turns around and compliments our food and thanks us for it.”

Moyano learned how to master operations concepts in Professor Wendell Gilland’s class and is now unafraid to tweak operational procedures. While he concentrated in real estate, strategy courses helped Moyano form his approach to running a food business and inspired him to lead regular brainstorming sessions with his co-founders.

“UNC Kenan-Flagler was eye-opening,” says Moyano. “Marketing was something I had no idea about. I learned so much about the importance of understanding how the consumer perceives us and what they need. That’s why we’ve changed a lot of our strategies over the years. I always think about that.”

Expecting the unexpected

Moyano’s life almost went very differently.

After earning a business degree from Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina and working as an investment banker, Moyano came to the U.S. for a one-year finance program at Harvard Business School.

He had never thought about pursuing an MBA until he looked at schools that offered concentrations in real estate. UNC immediately caught his eye, but so did Duke, Northwestern and Purdue. Ignasi Vivas (MBA ’01), one of the students who first showed Moyano around campus, became one of his best friends.

Hernan Moyano (MBA '02) at the Durham location of the business he co-founded, Makus Empanadas.

“We are always thinking about new things to do or better ways to do what we already do,” Moyano says. “We were and still are learning constantly.”

“There was a bond that was created with those who showed me the Business School that day. They made a huge impact on me,” Moyano says. “I completely fell in love with UNC Kenan-Flagler.”

By the time Moyano received an acceptance letter, he had already made up his mind.

“I was in heaven. My mind was already there,” he says. “This was my place.”

It was also the place where Moyano met his first wife, Sandra Trujillo (MBA ’02). After graduation, the two moved to Costa Rica where Moyano developed a luxury beach resort as the couple started a telecommunication business. Soon after the move, Sandra was diagnosed with breast cancer and the couple moved back to North Carolina for medical treatments.

Sandra died in 2008, six years after she was first diagnosed and just three days after her 35th birthday.

“I was lucky to have eight years with her,” says Moyano. “Those were years of peace and happiness together.”

Two years after Moyano launched Makus, he met Claire McPherson. The couple, who have two sons, married in April 2023 in Chapel Hill.

Empanadas were served at the wedding.

Challenge accepted

In the 10-plus years between earning his MBA and opening his empanadas business, Moyano established himself as a successful real estate developer.

A chance reconnection with his oldest friend changed that.

By coincidence, Moyano saw on Facebook that he and Ricky Yofre were in Chicago at the same time in the fall of 2013. By the following February, Yofre, a commodities broker who had just retired, and Moyano talked vaguely about doing something with food and brainstorming a concept that would become Makus.

The first time they cooked empanadas themselves, they used their grandparents’ recipes and eventually created a recipe of their own. At Makus’ Durham location, photos of Moyano, his brother and Yofre eating empanadas as children hang on the wall.

“Empanadas are the most popular food in Argentina by far,” says Moyano. “When you get together with friends, you bring empanadas. When you’re going to watch a soccer game, you bring empanadas. Empanadas are delivered to your house twice a week — at least. It’s in your brain. When you’re hungry, you think of empanadas.

“So, we decided to bring that here.”

They also brought a sense of community that comes with empanadas in Argentina. Doing something that made a difference in their community was always part of their game plan. He wanted to create a sense of community that he had seen while earning his MBA.

“I saw a lot of that at Carolina. I saw people helping each other,” he says. “There was always that teamwork, that camaraderie.”

Commitment to the community is a big reason why Makus never closed during the COVID-19 pandemic — 20 employees meant 20 families that depended on them. It’s why Makus began a campaign where buying a dozen empanadas meant they would donate a dozen to healthcare workers and the elderly. They donated over 12,000 empanadas.

Hernan Moyano (MBA '02) makes empanadas at the Durham location of Makus Empanadas.

Business challenges, even pandemic-level challenges, don’t phase Moyano – he even thrives on them. That’s another thing he learned about himself and business while at Carolina.

“I learned to challenge everything in school. We had to challenge everything,” he says. “When we had case studies, you always had to challenge what the professor was dictating. You needed to also challenge yourself constantly. You need to find a way to make your work better and more exciting. Your business should resonate. You should resonate.”