At her father’s restaurant outside Bogotá, Colombia, young Margarita Womack *09 had plenty to explore. The future ecology and evolutionary biology scholar caught frogs and snakes on the sprawling property. In the kitchen, she relished the challenge of making perfectly-shaped empanadas. “You actually do it with a regular cup,” she said. The result was a snack she could hold in one small hand.
Margarita’s childhood idyll didn’t last. “When I turned 18 my family was extorted by the guerrillas,” she said. She and a brother left — without their parents — to study in the U.S. She attended Tulane University, and then arrived at Princeton as the last graduate student of evolutionary biology giant Peter Grant; Professor David Stern mentored her and ultimately directed her thesis on evolution of divergent bodily forms in African fly species.
“My life was research,” she said. “Everything else was secondary.” Until one day, when a postdoc in the Stern lab decided to play Cupid. During a gathering at Winberie’s, the postdoc set her up with Andrew Womack *11, a molecular biology graduate student. Their first date was at Witherspoon Bread Company. “It was a three-hour lunch,” he said. “I think I was smitten from there.” It turns out they had more than science in common.
“I'm a big foodie,” Andrew said. “I love dissecting flavors when I’m traveling or at restaurants and then trying to recreate them.” The couple has hosted Thanksgiving every year since they started dating. Ever the scientist, his planning involves Excel spreadsheets.
The pair married in Cartagena, in view of centuries-old Spanish fortresses. Their first son was born in Princeton. After Andrew’s policy fellowship from the American Association for the Advancement of Science brought them to Washington, D.C., two more boys followed. Margarita took classes through Princeton’s Teacher Preparation Program, and she landed a job at a private girls’ middle school. Yet she craved more connection to her family and to its entrepreneurial spirit.
So they had an idea — a business idea. Al Sur Latin Kitchen and Catering began in the family kitchen. Now, the business is a member of Washington D.C.’s Union Kitchen accelerator program, which gives them access to industrial facilities, an investor network, and distribution channels. The product? Empanadas that fit in one hand, for families on the go.
Andrew has a day job with Genentech, and he loves dreaming up flavor combinations for new products. “We move a lot of product with grab-and-go at supermarkets,” he said. “Now we want to figure out a way to freeze the product without compromising quality.” Meanwhile, Margarita is earning her MBA. She’s quick with an analogy for her career journey. “I’m like a cat. I have all these professional lives,” she said. “Except I don’t die, I just reinvent myself.”