For Lorena Cantarovici, the chef-owner of 11-year-old Maria Empanada, the past 18 months have been packed with challenges and victories. When restaurants were forced to close to indoor dining in March 2020 to slow the spread of COVID-19, she layed off nearly her entire staff and shuttered two of her five Denver area locations. Until early 2021, the business relied on takeout sales and two rounds of Paycheck Protection Program loans to survive.
“The shutdown of restaurants was the scariest time in my life, and I’m assuming all small business owners felt the same,” says Cantarovici, a native of Buenos Aires, Argentina, who started selling empanadas out of her home garage in 2010. “All my effort, life, little money—my everything is invested right here. Seeing everything crashing down and not knowing what was going to happen is an experience I’ve never had before.”
This spring—as vaccines were administered and coronavirus dining restrictions were loosened—things began looking up for Maria Empanada. Business picked up, enabling Cantarovici to hire back about 30 employees, 80 percent of her previous staff. Then in mid-March, Vice President Kamala Harris visited with Cantarovici at the restaurant’s South Broadway location as part of the Biden Administration’s “Help is Here” listening tour touting the American Rescue Plan.
“When I had the shock and privilege of hosting Vice President Kamala Harris, I conveyed to her how fundamental restaurants are to the economy at large as well as a societal anchor,” Cantarovici says. “‘Restaurants need saving’ was my entire theme. I also told her how much of a help the PPP was for us and that we, like so many other restaurants, would simply not be here were it not for this lifeline.”
Cantarovici is grateful for the attention the vice president’s visit attracted from customers and local and national media, but prefers to view the event through a bipartisan lens. “I don’t see it as a republican or democratic thing,” she says. “I see it as the vice president of the United States—the country that opened the doors to me and my family—came to visit me. Sometimes it’s scary to show support for something because you can be judged for it. If Vice President Pence came, it would be the same.”
Even so, Cantarovici says she was thrilled to be in the presence of America’s first female vice president. “It felt so good to be sitting across from another very strong woman. I offered to show her how to cook empanadas but told her I prefer she be vice president,” she laughs.
Vice President Harris’ visit inspired Cantarovici to reflect on what owning a business during the pandemic taught her, including how a small restaurant’s success impacts the local, national, global economies. “Independent restaurants, more than any other industry that I can think of, are tangled networks of small businesses and a terminal point of vast ecosystems that have repercussions globally,” she says. “The butterfly effect is the idea that small things have unexpected impacts on complex systems.”
For instance, she says, when reduced sales prompted Maria Empanada to cut its fresh produce and coffee orders in half in 2020, the changes affected farmers and suppliers in Colorado and Peru. “The health of the U.S. independent restaurant’s butterfly wings creates tempests of economic impact, both extraordinary and devastating on a local, national, and international scale,” she says. “I’m quite sure that fewer date nights at bars and restaurants meant fewer shoe purchases, fewer manicures, less gas in cars, and a decline in salon hairdos.”
The return of packed dining rooms makes Cantarovici optimistic that restaurants—and the vast network of businesses they support—will thrive again, though it may take a year or two for Maria Empanada to fully recover. “We are not building a new thing; we are rebuilding,” she says. “And when you rebuild, you need to rebuild better than before. We need to be more human than ever before. Now it’s time to think differently. The pandemic gave me time to reflect on what I can do to be who I am—but better.”
A new online ordering system, high-speed internet, and health benefits for full-time employees are among the pandemic-induced changes Maria Empanada has implemented, all of which are here to stay and have strengthened her restaurants, Cantarovici says. Proof? Longtime fans continue supporting the business, including one legendary customer in particular. In July, Diners, Drive-Ins, & Dives star Guy Fieri, who featured Cantarovici on the show three previous times, asked her to return for a special takeout edition.
“If you ask me how much beauty I found in the past year, I need to tell you I found so much,” Cantarovici says. “Just a few months ago, these chairs were turned up on their tables, showing people that if you come to pick up food, you can’t stay. Now having the chairs back on the floor for people to sit, enjoy, watch soccer, or have conversations—that is what gets me excited.”
Maria Empanada is open at 1700 Platt St., 2501 Dallas St. (inside Stanley Marketplace), and 1298 South Broadway; a $185 Diners, Drive-Ins, & Dives empanada box is also available for nationwide shipping