In an industry as grueling as foodservice, any anniversary is worth a celebration. Those early years are filled with make-or-break moments, and many concepts fail before they even turn two. Those that prove their mettle are rewarded not just with a successful brand, but also with a certain perspective on building a restaurant for the future.
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If you ask Lorena Cantarovici, the path to Maria Empanada was fortuitous in many ways, zigzagging from her home in Argentina to the U.S., and from clerical work to the kitchen. But one thing has been clear to her since the fast casual’s inception: It would grow.
“I knew that if I were doing this right, there would be a way to scale it,” Cantarovici says. “That was the intention since day No. 1.”
The brand, which specializes in the Argentine turnover, now numbers four brick-and-mortar locations in the greater Denver area, and its signature empanadas are sold at another dozen independent coffee shops.
The unit count isn’t particularly remarkable (some brands number in the triple digits by five years), but in that time Maria Empanada has built a sturdy foundation—and has won over industry evangelists. In November, Colorado Impact Fund injected $3.5 million in Series A funding into the brand to spur growth in the form of six new locations and a central commissary. Earlier in 2017, Cantarovici was named Colorado’s Small Business Person of the Year.
“Those were the things that made me think that I was doing something right,” she says. “For me as a new immigrant and having that kind of recognition, it was something I still cannot express.”
While Maria Empanada is just now celebrating its fifth anniversary, the brand’s origin story traces back 17 years to when Cantarovici arrived in the U.S. with just $300 to her name. She’d already honed keen business acumen: She had been the youngest branch manager at Banco de Galicia in Buenos Aires, worked as an auditor in Mexico, and even earned her master’s degree in marketing.
She’d only intended to stay in the U.S. for a few months, but was quickly smitten with Denver and decided to make it her new home. While studying to become a certified public accountant, Cantarovici worked part-time as a restaurant server. Once certified, she was excited to return to clerical work and normal office hours—at least at first.
“I started working in an office, but I only did it for three months because I was missing the dynamic of the restaurant so badly,” she says. So she returned to the chaos of the kitchen. “When I came back, I started seeing restaurants in a different way; I started seeing them as a business. My intention was to touch every single area of the restaurant, every single job position. So I was a dishwasher; I was in the kitchen; I was a hostess; I was a server.”
The combination of starting a family and enduring the Great Recession delayed her from pursuing her own venture. Nevertheless, she started making empanadas at home, and soon friends and fellow Argentine expats began ordering them. A friend helped her convert the garage to a commercial kitchen, which increased production, but word of mouth soon outpaced Cantarovici’s capacity. That same friend pointed her in the direction of a 900-square-foot shop, and with $4,000 from friends, family, and her own pocket, she opened the first location in 2013. She named the business after her mother and grandmother. Although the name communicated the global nature of the cuisine, it also implied a certain familiarity. Or as Cantarovici puts it, “Who doesn’t have an important Maria or Mary in their life?”
Cantarovici says that as an immigrant, it was especially scary to open her own business. Even more daunting was the fact that the location was less than ideal and Maria Empanada did not sell much its first two years in business.
“I was in Tamale Land because everybody in that area was selling tamales,” she says. Few people knew what an empanada was, and those who did often associated it with the Mexican style, which skews sweet, not savory. Cantarovici knew education would be an integral component, especially in the early stages. She put the empanadas on display and even put someone at the corner in an empanada costume to direct customers to the store—but then they came in asking for tacos. “It was a lot of education that we needed to do, and [that’s] what we’ve been doing for five years. It was hard, but at the same time, it was very exciting because I was the owner of a business,” she says.
Since the beginning, empanadas have been—and remain—the star of the concept, but tartas (savory quiches) and tortilla española (a fluffy, rounded omelette) also comprise a good portion of the menu. Most of the recipes and flavor combinations stay true to tradition, but Cantarovici makes an exception with breakfast, which includes empanadas as well as facturas (sweet pastries that are breakfast staples in Argentina).
“When I told my family in Argentina that I was making breakfast empanadas, they couldn’t believe it,” she says.
Despite Cantarovici’s efforts, sales languished early on, and as Maria Empanada approached its second anniversary, Cantarovici debated whether she should renew the lease. While a recent CNBC report stated that 60 percent of restaurants fail within the first year and 80 percent within the first five years, that wasn’t the case for Maria Empanada.
“I was always blessed with little angels, and somebody told me about a location on Broadway,” she says. “I came to see it, and that location was big; it was beautiful, exactly like a place in Argentina.” With the help of a $63,000 microloan from the Colorado Enterprise Fund, Cantarovici moved operations to the 3,500-square-foot space in Denver’s bustling South Broadway neighborhood. In 2016, she opened a second store in Greenwood Village, then a third in Aurora in 2017, and a fourth this past summer along the Platte River.
Long term, Cantarovici’s plans are highly ambitious. She wants Maria Empanada to be a national chain, and given that there are few restaurants specializing in Argentine fare and even fewer in fast casual, she’s got plenty of white space to fill.
“I see people walking in the street eating an empanada, carrying a Maria Empanada box around, bringing it to their job and sharing it with their team,” Cantarovici says of the brand’s future expansion. “I want to see Maria Empanada everywhere.”