Today we’d like to introduce you to Norma Bedell.
Norma, we appreciate you taking the time to share your story with us today. Where does your story begin?
I have always wondered what I would do for a living. I had a passion for cooking but I was told for so long that there was no money in food service so I left the dream of becoming a chef behind. I got married at 23 to my husband who was a high school friend of mine since 10th grade.
We had our first child, Tori when I was 25. Less than two years later I had a son, Justin. We purchased our first home, had two cars in the driveway, and steady jobs so we decided, seven years later to have one more child, our daughter Jamie.
Life was good but I still wanted more out of my work life. You see, I was employed by the University of South Florida. I started as a secretary and worked hard to move up to Assistant University Registrar. I earned my bachelor’s degree and two master’s degrees and slowly advance in my career.
As an Afro-Cuban, female in a predominately white, male-dominated institution I was treated less than equal even though I am now a Ph.D. A candidate who is all but dissertation. After working at USF for nearly 26 years, many of them as a salaried employee where I worked 10-12 hour days, many weekends away from my family but that was the career I had chosen.
I was even considering working as a professor after I finished my Ph.D. After all, I did teach a few courses while working full-time there for a while too.
Throughout my employment, I was diligent, performed above the level expected of me, and received positive performance reviews throughout my over 25 years of service but on May 24, 2021, I was notified that USF would not renew my contract and that my position would end at the close of business on August 23, 2021.
All of this after I had filed several whistleblower complaints and participated in protected activities; I believe I have been discriminated against because of my race, gender, and age in violation of the Title VII and the Florida Civil Rights Act (‘FCRA”), Chapter 760, Florida Statutes, and retaliated against for asserting rights protected by those statutes.
I filed several complaints within USF’s Human Resources, Division of Inclusion and Equal Opportunity, USF’s Auditor General’s Office, The State of Florida’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), and Florida Commission on Human Relations (FCHR), and even though the NAACP.
As usual, USF denies any culpability so, in April of 2022, I filed a lawsuit against the University of South Florida Board of Trustees for discrimination and retaliation. That fight is just getting started but USF has a lot of friends in the judicial system. We will see how this goes.
Because of all of this, I became very depressed. I worked for years towards a high-level administrative or faculty position at USF that I was now forced to give up one dream and re-evaluate my new normal.
I went way back to when I was a little girl. My father took great pride in owning his own business. I thought I could own my own business too but doing what? My father had a trade. All I knew was higher education for the past two and half decades but that was and still is a very sore subject for me.
I wanted to change my life completely. Just after I lost my job I began working for Aramark in Food Service Management. I rekindled my love for cooking when we were short-handed and I had to fill in for a cook. It brought me back to Sunday dinners with my family.
My dad would wake up early and go food shopping for our huge Sunday feast for our entire family, cousins, aunt, uncles, and friends who assumed a family position as aunts and uncles to gain a seat at the coveted table. I would always be right next to my dad with my footstool asking if I could help. He never said no and taught me everything I know about Cuban culture and Cuban cuisine. I lost my father in 1980 but his gift and memories remain with me.
Having children of my own now I now appreciate how much teaching children to cook takes a great deal of time. I can see how he could have dismissed me to just get it all done before friends and family arrived but he never seemed to be bothered by it. He taught me that patience and thoroughness.
He always said it was important to learn how to make “authentic Cuban food”… emphasizing, “your culture is important, take the time to pass it along to your kids and everyone else you know.” That is what I did with my kids, what I tried to do at USF and that is what I will continue to now do through food in my new career as a restaurateur.
Now I make my dad’s amazing black beans, savory picadillo (ground beef in a savory tomato sauce), and his Cuban roast pork! I want to say mine is just a little bit better than his and even my Aunt Vina but don’t tell her that (haha).
I use only the freshest ingredients and, of course, homemade sofrito (onions, peppers, garlic, and cilantro blend) and mojo (delicious garlic, extra virgin olive oil, lime zest and fresh sneezed lime juice. It makes my mouth water just thinking about it. My mojo could literarily go on anything to make it better. I serve it with yucca fries. I put all of these fresh, ingredients to make small batches for the best-tasting food.
I feel like this is cathartic for me. I am so grateful to have the skills my father gave me with the opportunity that my circumstances brought me to so that I am able to do this. Most importantly, I have the love and support of my amazing husband and children who have been pushing me and helping me bring my dream into reality.
This is not any one of their dreams by any means… in fact, only one of them enjoys cooking as much as I do, my oldest daughter Tori who is a scientist by trade but provides all of the administrative and technical support for our business needs. She handles all of the invoices, taxes, our website, Instagram, TikTok, and all of our other business needs. My son, Justin has backed our restaurant financially and delivers food while also working a full-time job as does my husband.
My youngest daughter, Jamie has so many amazing skills that help make my job easier from organizing all of our products and packaging to keeping me mentally focused on what catering and delivery orders we may have in a given week. Jamie is an esthetician by trade but she is also an amazing artist and drew our logo which we endearingly named “Juan A. Empanada”… get it?
Alright, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall, and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
What I didn’t say is that in 2019 when The Cuban Empanada first started it was supposed to be an extra job for me to do what I loved but then Covid happened so we never got started except for making a few empanadas here and there for family and friends, mainly to test market our product and we didn’t have any business until the end of 2020 when Covid was lifted.
We have recently worked out of a shared “ghost” kitchen with just a dream of owning my own restaurant someday. Thanks to my family, that someday is now. We have a location that will open in July 2022. Follow us, check out our website, place an order to be delivered, picked up, or come in and sit down for one of the best Cuban meals you will ever eat.
Tell me you read this story and I’ll give you 15% off!
Alright, so let’s switch gears a bit and talk business. What should we know about your work?
I am most proud of my family. They are my everything and the reason I am re-inventing myself after what I thought was a major career setback but what I am finding as a rebirth.
I specialize in empanadas and we have a very wide variety of them to choose from. Our signature and crowd favorite is the Cuban sandwich empanada which is now award winning. On May 29, 2022 I won second place for World’s Best NON-TRADITIONAL Cuban Sandwich at the 11th Annual Ford International Cuban Sandwich Festival that was held May 29th, 2022 in Centennial Park in Historic Ybor City. It contains everything a great Cuban sandwich has in it but we make it even better. We offer a plant-based alternative Cuban sandwich empanada too that tastes just as good but a sustainable alternative. Nobody else is doing this and it tastes amazing!
You won’t even miss the meat. My favorite is the beef (picadillo) offered with or without cheese or plant-based for a vegan beef or beef and cheese, mojo chicken also with or without cheese, buffalo sauce or vegetarian or vegan using a plant-based substitute that gives our real mojo chicken a run for its money; pork and greens which we also offer as a vegan option.
We have a variety of other vegetarian options that include: spinach and feta, buffalo or regular mac and cheese, broccoli and cheese, and my daughter’s favorite, my sofrito potatoes, and cheese. For dessert, you should try my favorite, lemon blueberry, or maybe you want a Snickers or Reese empanada, and of course, we offer delicious guava and cream cheese empanada with real chunks of guava. YUMMY!
For those who do not want an empanada shell or are gluten-free, we offer what we call a “deconstructed empanadas” which are basically meals using fries, or salad as gluten-free options with any of the proteins that we offer in our empanadas or you can have a black bean or garbanzo bean soup with or without yellow or white rice. All of our sides including our bean soups are vegan.
We offer our empanadas fried, air fried (for a healthier cooking option), and even frozen for those who love them so much they want to take some home and enjoy them later. We strive to use eco-friendly packaging wherever possible and recycle in our continued effort to help elevate The Cuban Empanada’s carbon footprint.
We have an extensive catering menu too. I have been known to deviate from that menu if asked. For example, I was asked to make a pan of baked ziti and chicken and yellow rice for an event. Of course, I said yes! They were both a big hit.
Another customer asked for a pan of “pork and greens” which is a combination we offer as one of our awesome empanadas so I made it a “deconstructed” empanada in a 1/2 pan… this customer called me to tell me “my brother said you cook like a black girl” and I said, “I am Afro-Cuban you know!”
I had another customer say, “your greens taste like my grandmamas greens!” I took that as a compliment too.
Where we are in life is often partly because of others. Who/what else deserves credit for how your story turned out?
I have a lot of supporters as I mentioned in my story.
family – husband, David, three kids, Tori, Justin, and Jamie, and my sister Debbie who also works for TCE (The Cuban Empanada) and make an amazing flan (Titi’s flan) a new feature which is offered as a mini dessert, in a 1/2 or even a full pan as a catered meal and in an empanada, our “flanada”, a must-try!
I have friends at USF who love my empanadas and rice and beans. One USF employee what written up for using my catering after I filed my lawsuit and she continues to place orders despite the retaliation she received and I still have to endure. That is true support right there!
- Each empanada is only $5 each
- A small meal of 2 empanadas, a side, and a drink is $12
- A large meal of 3 empanadas, a side, and a drink for $15
- We cater small and large events – see website for pricing
- 15% off if you read and mention this story!
Tori, Kasey, and The Cuban Empanada, (TCE)