“At a time where unemployment is this low—here in Colorado, it’s 2.7 percent—it is affecting us incredibly,” says Lorena Cantarovici, owner of Denver-based Maria Empanada. After moving to the U.S. from Argentina 19 years ago with just $300, a backpack, and little to no English, Cantarovici created what is now a five-unit empanada chain that employs many fellow immigrants. “If something happens and we stop immigration, who is going to do these kind of jobs with passion?”
This is even more concerning in light of NRA projections about the extent to which the restaurant industry—which today employs more than 15 million people—will grow over the next decade. “You’re talking close to 17 million employees by 2029, so it is an extremely labor-intensive industry and will remain so over the next decade,” Riehle says.
For Cantarovici, it’s clear why restaurants fear a loss of immigrant workers on their teams. “Immigrants come to fight—fight in a good way. They know what it means to be without a job,” she says. “Here, I think people take it for granted in some ways. But coming from another country—especially in Latin America—we’re born fighting for a space and fighting for a job and equality, fighting for stability, fighting for everything. Here, if I am a hostess, I want to be the best hostess because I need that job.”
Plus, as consumer palates become more global and sophisticated, the industry requires individuals who can authentically satisfy those cravings. “Obviously, many of these foreign-born individuals come in and specialize in their cuisines from which they embarked,” Riehle says.
But why have immigrants flocked to restaurants in the first place? For one, they’re familiar and comforting, Lanzone says, especially for immigrants from Latin or South America and Asia, where food is heavily ingrained in their cultures. Cantarovici adds that the language barrier plays a big role, too. Many people find comfort in simple dishes that remind them of home.
Restaurants are also a good place for immigrants to learn more about the norms and customs of their new home. “The first way you can feel the country is by its food and its restaurants,” she says. “It’s a good picture of how the country is.”
Not to mention, many immigrants view the restaurant industry as one in which they can more easily climb the ladder through dedication and hard work. “The restaurant industry is one of the primary industries whereby an individual can go from the dish room up to the boardroom and/or ownership,” Riehle says.
At Maria Empanada, Cantarovici has seen many of these success stories firsthand, whether it’s the dishwasher who has grown into a supervisor, the delivery driver who now works in IT, or the woman who started as a kitchen worker and climbed her way up to serve as general manager at Maria Empanada’s largest location.
Though the future of immigration policy remains unclear, one thing the industry can be certain of is that people like the Lanzones and Cantarovici will continue to make a positive impact, as did many immigrants before them. “Right now, it’s Latin people, but if you go back 80 years ago, it was the Italian people and the Irish people coming in through Ellis Island,” Lanzone says. “So we have to sit back and see where those people came from and where we are right now because of those people.”