When Lorena Cantarovici opened Maria Empanada out of a tiny, nondescript storefront in Lakewood in 2011, she was laying the groundwork for something larger. “I opened Maria Empanada with the intention of growing it with more locations,” she says. “I saw it from the beginning.”
It took a lot of grit and determination but today, Cantarovici’s little-idea-that-could sells 25,000-30,000 empanadas a week, has blossomed into three locations (Broadway, DTC, and the Stanley Marketplace), and, in 2015, nabbed an appearance on Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives.
In March, Cantarovici was named the Small Business Association’s Colorado Small Business Person of the Year. And just last month, Maria Empanada announced that it has secured Series A funding—to the tune of 3.5 million dollars—from the Colorado Impact Fund. For Cantarovici, a Buenos Aires native, the funds are as much as investment in her company as it is a validation of the empanada itself. “What [Colorado Impact Fund] saw was a very clever product—it’s not another hamburger place, pizza place, or burrito place,” she says. “It was a big fight at the beginning for people to understand what is an empanada but they saw that it was very special.”
Aside from taste, what makes Maria Empanada’s pastries noteworthy is the craftsmanship: Every single empanada is finished by hand. “It’s very important that the last touch is by a human. No empanada is the same even if it’s the same flavor,” Cantarovici says. And even with further expansion on the horizon, she vows this will never change. “Expansion would be in our kitchens so everything is in one place,” she says. “I want control and I don’t want to compromise.” Read on for three more things you didn’t know about Cantarovici.
1. On why empanadas… Initially it was need. It was something affordable in my county—in same way as pizza. It’s very typical that you get together with friends and family and there are always two choices: pizza or empanadas. Empanadas were what I was missing here and they were hard to find.
2. On turning points… I was in my kitchen in Denver and I was doing empanadas for an order for one of my friends. She wanted only corn and they were exploding because of the altitude. I remember at one or two in the morning I took the last batch out of the oven and they were exploded. I started taking empanadas from the tray and talking to them ‘Why are you doing this to me?’ And then I threw them at the window. I wish I had a picture of the window full of corn empanadas falling down. It wasn’t funny then, but now it is. And if I weren’t persistent I wouldn’t be where I am.
3. On creating jobs… Empanadas are an art. It’s an art that is dying even in my country. More and more things are made with machines—we don’t want to do that. We want to continue to make them special and we are a company that is people-oriented. Creating jobs is very important. I saw my mom suffering to find jobs in my country. So for me being here and giving jobs is very special. That is another ingredient that’s in your food that people can’t see.