‘It’s part of who we are’: NKY Argentinian restaurant preps for Lionel Messi’s Cincinnati debut

Kenton Hornbeck
Kenton Hornbeck
Kenton is a reporter for LINK nky. Email him at [email protected]

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Update: Since the original publication of this story, The Empanada’s Box announced on Facebook that the FC Cincinnati ticket giveaway was canceled.

According to the post, the restaurant “received a call from the MLS by way of FC Cincinnati’s lawyers that we are NOT allowed to give away the pair of tickets we purchased to pass along to you all in celebration of Messi’s debut in Cincinnati.”

“To say we are disappointed is an understatement but this does not affect our love for futbol, Messi or our home team,” the post reads.

However, the restaurant will continue to offer its special combo featuring a Buenos Aires empanada, Cinci Chili empanada, Miami empanada and a yerba mate tea for the discounted price of $10.

Read the original story here:

During the World Cup Final, Lucas Nunez was stuck delivering empanadas.

His uncle Diego, the co-founder of The Empanada’s Box, was at home watching the match with his wife, Fabiana. Lucas had the match pulled up on his phone, listening intently as Argentina clawed back against France, the tournament’s defending champions.

Lucas, Diego and Fabiana were originally from Buenos Aires — Argentina’s capital city. For many Argentinians, soccer, or football, is more than a game.

“I don’t know how to explain it,” Lucas said. “It’s just like a part of who we are.”

Diego tasked Lucas with opening the store that morning. Customers were darting in and out, anxiously trying not to miss any of the action while they hustled to pick up their to-go orders. Eventually, Lucas was tasked with making a delivery to Braxton Brewing, a short walk from The Empanada’s Box storefront on 212 W. Pike St.

He arrived just in time for the most critical point of the match. Argentina and France had already exhausted both fifteen-minute frames of extra time. Tied 3-3, the match was coming down to penalty kicks. Everyone inside the brewery had their eyes locked on the televisions. They were enjoying the theatrics of what would be the most-watched soccer match in world history. At one point, Lucas tried to phone his mother. She wasn’t having it.

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“I tried to call my mother and she was like, ‘hey, no, don’t even talk to me right now,’” Lucas reminisced.

With the world championship on the line, 25-year-old Argentinian right back Gonzalo Montiel calmly approached his penalty kick. He connected with the ball. The goalkeeper dove to the right. The ball beamed to the left. Unimpeded, it snapped into the bottom left part of the goal. Deafening cheers protruding from the television speakers turned into white noise. Argentina had won the World Cup.

When Lucas spoke to his uncle after the match, he said Diego told him he had to take a walk during the penalty shootout due to his nerves.

Throughout the rest of the day, customers that visited the storefront congratulated Lucas and everyone who worked there on the victory. Even though they didn’t play on the team, they were a part of Argentina’s win.

“When they won that day, that whole day, everyone was just congratulating us,” said Lucas, The Empanada’s Box sales and marketing director. “Everyone was hype. The energy was nothing like before.”

Diego described himself as “an Argentinian living the American dream” on The Empanada’s Box website. When he was eight years old, Diego learned to cook by working at his family’s pizza restaurant and bakery in Buenos Aires. The restaurant not only baked pizzas but also empanadas, a type of baked turnover made of pastry and filling. It’s a popular street food in the country.

In 2000, he came to the United States, continuing to work in the food industry. His specialty was baking empanadas. After relocating from Miami to Cincinnati, Diego, along with Fabiana and Lucas, opened The Empanada’s Box in June 2020 as part of the Findlay Launch Storefront Accelerator Program in Findlay Market. The business eventually graduated from the program, finding a permanent storefront across the river in Covington.

“We just thought Covington would be the right spot, especially because this spot already had the essentials like a kitchen and everything,” Lucas said.

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The World Cup victory was not only a big deal for the team and country but also for their best player. The victory cemented Lionel Messi, Argentina’s larger-than-life superstar, as possibly the greatest player in the history of the sport. He finally earned the trophy which eluded him for so long.

Inter Miami forward Lionel Messi smiles before a Leagues Cup soccer match against Cruz Azul, Friday, July 21, 2023, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

As a tribute to their country’s greatest sportsman, The Empanada’s Box has a photo hanging on the wall of Messi drinking yerba mate tea, a popular drink in Argentina and a personal favorite of Messi’s, Lucas explained.

Argentina’s World Cup victory was also good for The Empanada’s Box business. More people were coming into the store and ordering deliveries. After the win, The Empanada’s Box offered the promotion of one free Buenos Aires empanada and a cup of yerba mate tea. Since they opened their Covington storefront in 2022, Lucas said they’ve experienced “steady growth.”

Now, The Empanada’s Box hopes to capitalize on another massive business opportunity presented by their country’s favorite game. Messi is one of the most famous people in the world. He boasts 481 million followers on Instagram. On Aug. 23, the soccer star will play in Cincinnati for the first time.

In the months since Argentina won the World Cup, Messi decided to make like LeBron James and “take his talents to South Beach” by joining Major League Soccer’s Inter Miami CF.

Since Messi joined the club, tickets to Inter Miami matches have become a hot commodity. Even though Inter Miami is in last place in the MLS’ Eastern Conference, Messi is the biggest draw in the league. On the opposite end, FC Cincinnati is in first place. The club is amid its most successful season in franchise history.

In the buildup to the match, The Empanada’s Box is hosting a giveaway where two fans can enter to win two tickets to watch Messi and Inter Miami take on FC Cincinnati—the league’s best player versus the league’s best team. On SeatGeek, a ticket to the match are listed anywhere between $450 to $2,500.

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“We are huge FC Cincinnati fans and are so excited for an opportunity to see our country’s hero take on our favorite team,” Diego said in a press release. “We want to share our excitement with others by giving away a set of tickets to the match and to celebrate by bringing together our new home Cincinnati, Miami, and our native city of Buenos Aires in a special combo.” 

People can enter the giveaway starting Aug. 6 on The Empanada’s Box Instagram page. Entries close Aug. 20 at 10 a.m., and a winner will be randomly selected. Additionally, the restaurant is debuting a special combo meal featuring their Buenos Aires empanada, Cinci Chili empanada, Miami empanada and a yerba mate tea for the discounted price of $10.

Lucas told LINK nky that the giveaway has begun to grow their Instagram following. As of now, their account has nearly 3,000 followers.

“I mean, in the last day we’ve gotten dozens of followers on Instagram because we announced we were giving away some tickets,” Lucas said. “This is a very big deal for us, just like the Cup was.”

Since The Empanada’s Box opened, Cincinnati has burst onto the professional soccer scene. FC Cincinnati’s first season in MLS was in 2019. Two years later, the club opened TQL Stadium in Cincinnati’s West End neighborhood — the city’s premier venue for pro soccer. Two years after the stadium opened, the club is in first place and will host the sport’s biggest superstar.

“I feel like everything happened for a reason,” Lucas said. “We lived in Miami and we moved here, like kind of spontaneously. They created the stadium for FC Cincinnati. And now Messi is coming. It’s unbelievable. It’s like everything aligned.”

Despite appreciating Messi for his World Cup heroism, Lucas said he’ll be cheering for FC Cincinnati on gameday.

“Now with the FC Cincinnati stadium, the Reds stadium, the Bengals stadium — there’s a different energy in the city,” Lucas said.

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