Lorena Cantarovici, owner of Maria Empanada named Colorado’s 2017 Small Business Person of the Year winner

Lorena Cantarovici, owner of Maria Empanada named Colorado’s 2017 Small Business Person of the Year winner

Born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Lorena Cantarovici was raised most of her life by her single mother Maria. Impacted by Argentina’s history of volatile economies, Lorena and her mother were constantly on the verge of homelessness. While working full-time to support herself and her mother, Lorena also successfully obtained her degree in accounting.

Her first career was working for Argentina’s largest private bank, and soon she became the youngest branch manager nationwide. She later became a bank auditor in Mexico and obtained her Master’s degree in Marketing. In order to improve her English, she came to Denver, Colorado originally scheduled for three months, and ended up never wanting to leave.

Settling into her new city of Denver, she made empanadas for a party and was approached by a caterer for a big order. That original order turned into several more, and Lorena quickly outgrew her home kitchen. She, friends and family converted her garage into a simple working clean kitchen. But even with the larger space Lorena’s banking and marketing background gave foundations to her dreams about expanding her catering orders to a full-fledged business. She sought assistance in making these dreams possible by attending a SBA-funded partner of her local SBDC, and attended a workshop to draft her first formal business plan in 2010. Supplementing the workshop, she received consultations from SBDC counselors focused on marketing, accounting, legal and risk management. Lorena took the advice from the SBDC to heart and stayed true to her business plan, creating both an operations manual and an employee manual before she ever had a storefront or employees.

As the volumes of her orders for empanadas continued to increase, she decided it was time to move into a commercial, public space of 900 sq. ft. with 3 tables and six seats utilizing $4,000 in family loan. Lorena will describe this time as one of the most challenge times for Maria Empanadas, largely focused on financial challenges she experienced, with no reserves, her credit exhausted and payroll, water and electrical bills.

Nevertheless, Lorena persisted and Maria Empanada’s volume continued to grow. Lorena sought to expand the physical location to meet the increase demand. Utilizing a SBA microloan lender Colorado Enterprise Fund, she obtained a $63,000 microloan and moved Maria Empanada to a 3,500 sq. ft. location in an enterprise zone in the South Broadway area of Denver.

Focused on staying true to artisanal products, each empanada is still handmade, and new staff is required to master 30 days of continuous training in order to learn Lorena’s method of making the empanadas. Lorena defines their craftsmanship as Maria Empanada as her competitive advantage, as most competitors use machine made empanadas, which produce empanadas of lower quality, lower visual impact and lack of artistry. Maria Empanada has since become the
nation’s leading artisanal empanada restaurant concept with Argentine empanadas, tartas and specialty desserts, focusing both on the national trend of ready-to-eat ethnic food trends and Colorado (and the nation’s) growing fast-casual restaurant segment.

In September 2016, Lorena opened her second location of Maria Empanada in the Denver Tech Center, an area that features more than 3,000 companies within a 2-mile radius, utilizing a SBA 7(a) Loan of $291,000 from Citywide Banks to purchase equipment, renovations and working capital. Lorena’s third location is expected open in summer 2017 at the Stanley Marketplace in Aurora, Colorado.

Lorena’s desire to continue to grow and improve Maria Empanada also relates to her desire to continually improve as the owner – she graduated Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses at Babson University and took part in the Latino Entrepreneur Leaders program at Stanford University. During these programs, she created the systems and operations structure that currently guides Maria Empanada. She teaches and reinforces that each staff is trained in and follows the catalog of processes and the framework of decision-making.

Stemming from the hardship Lorena and her mother faced during Lorena’s childhood, Lorena has a strong belief that charity begins at home and in the community. Lorena focuses her and Maria Empanada’s community assistance within a 3-mile radius of her shops that support issues around children, education and the hungry. The two current Maria Empanada locations have arrangements with the local elementary schools where a percentage of sales go to the elementary schools on designated night events. For four years, Lorena has also teamed up with the Denver Active 20-30 children’s foundation for the Denver Polo Classic, the nation’s largest charitable Polo tournament. Additionally, Maria Empanada’s has donated over $8,000 worth of empanadas for children’s causes, while all visually imperfect empanadas or those empanadas not sold are taken to homeless shelters and religious institutions several times each week.

With several awards, national press - such as being named one of the hottest bakeries in the country by Zagat’s - and appearances on the Food Network, Lorena is now opening her third location Maria Empanada. From its opening days to current operation, Maria Empanadas has expanded from 1 to 25 staff and has increased production from 160 empanadas to 60,000 empanadas per month. Adding to Maria Empanada’s acclaim, Lorena Cantarovici is the 2017 Colorado Small Business Person of the Year.