Just a few years ago, Lorena Cantarovici was selling empanadas and other South American baked goods out of her home, but today she's celebrating big news. Venture capital firm Colorado Impact Fund has agreed to infuse Maria Empanada, Cantarovici's small group of Argentinian cafes, with up to $3.5 million in investment money.
Cantarovici came to the the U.S. from Argentina with almost nothing, but began making empanadas for friends out of her garage and then opened a tiny bakery at South Sheridan Boulevard and West Mississippi Avenue in 2011. In 2014, she moved Maria Empanada to a modern cafe at 1298 South Broadway, and since then has added outposts in the Denver Tech Center (at 8000 East Belleview Avenue) and inside Stanley Marketplace (2501 Dallas Street in Aurora).
The chef explains that she first met with representatives of Colorado Impact Fund three years ago and invited them to her shop for coffee and pastries. It took two years for that meeting to happen, but the investors were impressed. Now that they have agreed to a partnership, Cantarovici says she will be able to accelerate growth plans for her business. "The investment is to be able to open new locations, invest in new equipment, improve our kitchens and expand," she notes.
In fact, that expansion is already in the works: Cantarovici adds that she has already signed a lease on a new space that will put her in the heart of one of downtown's most vibrant districts (though she's not ready to reveal the exact location). She expects to open the fourth Maria Empanada in the summer of 2018 and is also actively looking for at least one more spot to open next year.
Despite the cash infusion, Cantarovici remains humble. "I don't want to ever forget when I was struggling even to pay two employees," she says.
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One of the challenges of even the most successful of restaurant enterprises is retaining talent, since so many new businesses are opening across the city. "I am lucky and blessed that 90 percent of my people stay," Cantarovici adds. "We try to continue our culture of 'buena onda' — good vibes."
Cantarovici tries to infuse her employees with that sense of buena onda, even if it's just something as simple as a few minutes of singing in the kitchen before the end of shift. Some of her employees have left, tempted by slightly higher wages elsewhere, but she notes that many return for the culture.
Maria Empanada has attracted recognition even outside of Colorado. This year, Cantarovici was named Colorado Small Business Person of the Year by the U.S. Small Business Administration, and her shop has appeared on the Food Network. Maria Empanada is also on Eat Here: our list of 100 restaurants we can't live without.
With new money and a continued drive to provide an authentic Argentinian cafe experience to the city, Maria Empanada will soon be spreading even more buena onda in Denver.