At one point, Lorena Cantarovici wondered if her business concept was half-baked.
Cantarovici is the founder of Maria Empanada, a chain of fast-casual restaurants across Colorado. When she came to the U.S. from Argentina in 2000, she had little money and didn’t speak a word of English. She started making empanadas out of nostalgia for her home country, selling them to friends and neighbors. In 2011, on a whim, she and her husband looked at a storefront for rent, and they made a lowball offer that included significant renovations. When the landlord accepted, Cantarovici was shocked.
At first, the store seemed like a huge mistake. People in Colorado were unfamiliar with empanadas, and the shop struggled. She had an employee to pay and two kids to support, but people weren’t coming.
Cantarovici considered friends’ suggestions that she add other items to the menu or call them “Mexican empanadas” to appeal to the local clientele. “But if I followed their advice, it wouldn’t be authentic,” she says.
Instead, she put up pictures of empanadas in the window and created a cabinet to display the freshly made pastries to passersby. Despite attracting a small core following, the business continued to struggle to reach the $600-per-day in sales it needed to break even, and Cantarovici was worried. “Some days we’d only sell $100 worth of empanadas.”
Turning Down a Lifeline
One day, an investor offered her several thousand dollars in exchange for a piece of the business. “It wasn’t a lot of money, but at the time it was exactly the amount I needed to survive,” Cantarovici says.
She and the investor met several times over three months and even drew up papers to make it official. But on the day she was going to sign them, her gut told her it was the wrong move. “I had to listen to my instinct, and it didn’t like what the investor was saying,” Cantarovici says. She decided that she’d rather let the business fail than give part of it away.
Taking a Chance
“We were very close to the end,” she admits. But friends pitched in, offering her support and small loans to survive until her lease expired a few months later. She then moved to a new location: a bakery that had a lot more foot traffic in a building owned by a man who had been to Argentina and understood her vision.
“It was a sign that this was the right thing,” Cantarovici says.
A heated display case served as the focal point of the space and helped make the product shine. Cantarovici quickly built a loyal following and a year later opened a second store. Today she has five Maria Empanada locations.
“I am so thankful that I went with my gut and didn’t take that money,” she says. “As an owner, you are the only one who can hear that voice inside you, so you have to be strong enough to listen.”
Photos courtesy of Studiocandela.com