Good Company: Maria Empanada Spearheaded by Immigrant Entrepreneur
Lorena Cantarovici draws from childhood memories to bring Denver an Argentinian delicacy
Born in Buenos Aires, Lorena Cantarovici was raised by her single mother, Maria. Times were tough, and she and her mother were on the verge of homelessness throughout much of her childhood. But what she lacked in funds and furnishings, she made up for in family and a rich culture.
Cantarovici eventually worked for Argentina’s largest private bank, Banco de Galicia, and became the youngest branch manager in the country. She left a career in finance and accounting in Mexico and moved to Denver 16 years ago. Cantarovici began re-creating her grandmother’s empanadas in 2010, using the imprint of her early life in Argentina as a recipe. Motivated to bring the Latin American cuisine to her new home, she committed to entrepreneurship, starting small and selling empanadas from her garage, mostly to friends and family.
Fast-forward, and this year, Cantarovici was named the Small Businessperson of the Year in Colorado by the federal Small Business Administration, with three brick-and-mortar locations and big hopes for a future empanada empire.
CB: Why empanadas?
LC: My family, we were very humble. [My grandmother’s home in Cordoba] didn’t have electricity or running water. The bathroom was outside. I used to live with my grandparents for three months out of the year when I was growing up. I loved it. I would feed the chickens and the ducks. I had a pet goose who I took on a leash around the river.
My grandfather built an ‘Horno de Barro,’ a clay/brick oven, outside where my grandmother would bake bread, cakes, as well as bake empanadas. She would also fry empanadas in a pot of oil over a kerosene burner.
We fold each empanada by hand. Every empanada flavor has a unique fold, or repulgue, an art which is fast disappearing. Maria Empanada makes close to 40 flavors and our recipe book continues to expand. We only serve typically 14 at a time and specials that rotate with the seasons or with exceptional produce or products that we find.
Sometimes, I find myself trying to re-create the life of my empanada. Since the beginning, my frustration was with the dough because of the altitude. The corn empanada was the most tragic one. They all exploded. The only one I was able to grab with a spatula, I grabbed it and threw it, and it exploded in my window.
How did you know when empanadas had gone from kitchen hobby to business?
I got a call from a small catering company after the owner tried my empanadas at a party. It was for 40 empanadas, but I thought I was onto something. After that order, I knew I had to write a business plan and throw myself into research. The first part of my research was to read every recipe I could find and try empanadas from every empanada business in the U.S. I eventually went to Argentina and went to an uncountable number of empanada shops large and small. I came back with several notebooks worth of notes. Those notes became the framework for what Maria Empanada is today.
(Later) I got a phone call from the company that caters to the Broncos and Tony’s Market. They wanted empanadas, but Broncos-sized, filled with chicken and beef for a nice, easy meal after practice.
After six months in my house, in 2011, we didn’t have much money, almost nothing actually. But a friend of mine said, ‘I found a place that can be great for you in Lakewood.’ It was perfect.
What moments stick out that were particularly challenging as an immigrant entrepreneur?
As a foreigner, you don’t know where to start. In October 2010, I took a Startup Business Class at the SBDC. I learned that all successful businesses, including restaurants, are a matter of processes and operations, very much like the inner workings of a bank. Processes run the business. People run the processes.
I wished [the material at the SBDC] could all be in Spanish. Even just a few years ago, my English was not good. I had class for three hours, two times per week. I didn’t understand. I was trying to read lips to pay attention and the material was so difficult to understand. I wanted to be able to talk to my lawyer in my language. If I need to put a business together and make sure I’m doing everything right, it would be a big assistance if it was in my language.
As a result, I am presently working with the Colorado Restaurant Association to develop material that will be available in Spanish to incentivize future Lorenas.
As an entrepreneur, of course, one of the big things is capital. Starting with nothing can be difficult. At the same time, having no capital forces you to learn where your priorities are.
You have left the back-of-the-house part of the business and stepped into a CEO role. What lessons have you learned?
I always ask God, don’t make me feel comfortable. Let me cry every single time I receive recognition — just the recognition of a single customer. Don’t let me forget.
When we were in our little location in Lakewood, somebody came in, bought a few empanadas and a few minutes later, we received a phone call. That person said: ‘Those things are fantastic!’ That was a huge recognition. All the effort that had gone in; my poor English. But taking the time for that phone call — that felt like a milestone.
Today, I still create new recipes. When we are slammed with business or have a massive catering order to fill, I still love to show up to the repulgue table with the other artisans to be part of the team. I’m still a fast folder. I think it keeps the girls on their toes.
How does your culture show up in the restaurants?
The words “Buena Onda” appear on all my employee manuals. ‘Buena Onda’ is somewhat difficult to translate; it literally means good vibrations or good waves, but ‘Buena Onda’ connotes positive and pleasant personal interactions. Having a connection and relating to people in a good way, on their wavelength.
When we hire people, we naturally look for experience, but paramount to everything else, we look to see if they have ‘Buena Onda.’
In this industry, people in the kitchen are used to being yelled at, having the kitchen manager yelling at everyone and constant pressure. We don’t have that here.
Your third location inside Stanley Marketplace opened in September. How do you like that space?
For me, putting a bunch of businesses under one roof — that’s a family. It brings all people together. We are all the same. We are united. We all like to eat and drink
All I can say is, we are expanding. Slowly, methodically — but expanding.