Lorena Cantarovici started her Argentinian bakery out of a tiny storefront at Sheridan Boulevard and West Mississippi Avenue in 2011, selling to-go orders almost exclusively, since there just wasn't much room in the shop for customers. Her empanadas and other offerings were a big hit, though, and by 2014 she had moved into the spacious cafe Maria Empanada now calls home at 1298 South Broadway.
The empanada business continued to grow, and Cantarovici expanded with new cafes in the Denver Tech Center, Stanley Marketplace and on Platte Street, but the current coronavirus crisis and the closing of restaurant dining rooms for the next few weeks has drastically slowed business at Maria Empanada, as at so many other eateries around Denver. The business is once again a takeout operation, just like in the early days, before the first bakery even opened, when Cantarovici sold empanadas to friends and neighbors out of her house. The South Broadway location continues to sell empanadas, tartas, tortillas españolas and other Argentinain specialties through curbside pick-up and third-party delivery.
"It's day by day, minute by minute," the chef says of her business. "But I remember that this is happening to everyone, everywhere."
And like nearly every restaurant in Colorado, Cantarovici has had to make difficult decisions to keep the business afloat. The cafes are all counter-service, so her front-of-house staff was already smaller than at full-service restaurants, but she still had to lay off almost 60 percent of her employees. But she paid them one week of severance pay and gave everyone significant gift cards to use at the cafe. "This is a family," she says. "It was a really hard thing to do."
Maria Empanada is also allowing employees who had company-provided RTD passes to keep using them for the next ninety days, and Cantarovici is putting together "canastas familiares," or family baskets with a week of food, for the next three weeks.
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The layoffs were difficult, but the owner says she knows that maintaining social distancing to slow the spread of the coronavirus is the right thing to do. "I think it's most important that we do what's responsible," she notes.
Creativity is crucial during this time, Cantarovici adds, so she's looking at ways of bringing in revenue, such as encouraging shipping of her empanadas. Right now, she's working on the best way to pre-freeze the baked goods for sale, something the company has never done before. The bakery notes that you can also freeze your empanadas at home for up to two months, so ordering extras is an efficient way to stock up without making multiple trips or delivery payments. And in the meantime, if you need to get out of the house, the South Broadway Maria Empanada is also selling bottles of wine and beer for curbside pick-up with food orders.
"I want to be part of a solution," Cantarovici says of the coming weeks. "It is important to keep going."
Maria Empanada is open at South Broadway and Mississippi Avenue for takeout and delivery from 7:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Call 303-934-2221 or place your order through Grubhub or DoorDash.