Woman taps Venezuelan recipes, business savvy with Arempas — soon to open its 5th locale

Sandy Arrieta, left, and son Erick Pernia outside the Salt Lake City Arempas location, the family business on Thursday.

Sandy Arrieta, left, and son Erick Pernia outside the Salt Lake City Arempas location, the family business on Thursday. (Tim Vandenack, KSL.com)

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SALT LAKE CITY — Erick Pernia calls his mom, Sandy Arrieta, a "serial entrepreneur."

In her native Venezuela, Arrieta ran a mobile phone locale for a carrier in the nation. Since coming to the United States in 2000, she's run a day care center, launched a home cleaning business — We Clean Homes — and, more recently, opened a Venezuelan eatery — Arempas. Arempas will soon open its fifth Utah location.

"She's always just been an entrepreneur," Pernia said.

Arempas, though, seems to have a special spot in Arrieta's heart — "I like the idea of Americans trying Venezuelan food," she said — and it's probably the most visible of her ventures. It's also, perhaps, her most ambitious.

Pernia, who helps run the family business with his mom and sister, speaks of one day franchising. Arrieta dreams of arepas or empanadas, food standards in Venezuela, one day challenging the ubiquity in the U.S. market of tacos, that tortilla-and-meat staple of Mexico.

It won't be quick or easy, as tacos are the "king" of Hispanic food, she said. Still, she's resolute, as is Pernia.

"We want to have our day. We think, little by little, we'll get there," Arrieta said.

Erick Bernia inside the Salt Lake City Arempas, a family-operated restaurant featuring Venezuelan food on Thursday.
Erick Bernia inside the Salt Lake City Arempas, a family-operated restaurant featuring Venezuelan food on Thursday. (Photo: Tim Vandenack, KSL.com)

Arrieta grew up in Venezuela cooking for her younger siblings, kept it up in the United States, selling Venezuelan food to friends and others, and ultimately parlayed her kitchen skills into a brick-and-mortar restaurant.

Arempas — the name is a mix of "arepa" and "empanada," two staples of Venezuelan cuisine — first opened in Salt Lake City in 2019. Locales in Orem and Midvale followed in 2022, a new location opened in Sandy last year and a fifth outlet is coming to South Jordan, probably later this month.

"It wasn't planned," Arrieta said. She first came to the United States in 2000 to escape the repression she foresaw under President Hugo Chávez, who took over in 1999 and implemented socialist-inspired change that continues under Nicolás Maduro, his successor.

In fact, the popularity of Arempas took her by surprise, and the past five years have been a whirlwind. "It's been very fast. It's been surprising. It's been tiring," she said.

At any rate, with the South Jordan location soon to open, she's bracing for several more months of hard work, at least, to get it established.

The food, undoubtedly, is central to the success of Arempas. Pernia said the offerings, authentically Venezuelan, are just like his mom would make for the family as he was growing up. "Everything is exactly as if it was made at home," he said.

Arepas feature a foundation of a flatbread made of cornmeal — the arepa — and, depending on the version, a mix of meat, cheese, beans, vegetables and/or plantain, stuffed inside. The plain, unadorned arepa, Pernia said, is what the tortilla is to Mexico and bread is to the United States — the foundation of many meals.

The Arempas empanadas are made with corn flour, not wheat flour as is common in other South American nations, and they come with a range of fillings — shredded beef, pork or chicken, potatoes and cheese and more.

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Other menu selections include the Pabellón, a plate of black beans, shredded beef, rice and plantain, and entrees featuring cachapas and patacones, other Venezuelan staples.

"Once you try this food, you have a thought — 'Oh my gosh, where has this been all my life?'" Pernia said. Like his mom's dream of taking on the taco, Pernia dreams of making arepas as commonplace as pizzas, hamburgers and other common U.S. menu items.

Still, he thinks there's more to Arempas' success than just his mom's recipes and food know-how, however important that is. He and the others who run the Arempas locales are also pushed by a desire to support Arrieta and her drive to make the restaurant succeed.

"I think love is a big part of it as corny as it sounds," Pernia said.

Correction: In an earlier version, Sandy Arrieta's last name was incorrectly spelled as "Larrieta" and Erick Pernia's last name was incorrectly spelled as "Bernia."

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Tim Vandenack covers immigration, multicultural issues and Northern Utah for KSL.com. He worked several years for the Standard-Examiner in Ogden and has lived and reported in Mexico, Chile and along the U.S.-Mexico border.


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