Lorena Cantarovici | Crain's Denver

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Lorena Cantarovici


Maria Empanada is a chain of fast-casual restaurants in Denver that focuses on empanadas in the South American style. Founded in 2011, the company now has around 30 employees and three locations, including a new one that opened this year at Stanley Marketplace. In November 2017, the Colorado Impact Fund invested $3.5 million into Maria Empanada, allowing the company to expand and make other improvements. Maria Empanada is planning to open two new locations by the end of 2018.

Lorena Cantarovici was recently named Colorado’s 2017 Small Business Person of the Year by the U.S. Small Business Administration. Maria Empanada was named to the Colorado Companies to Watch Winners list.

The Mistake:

I didn’t know things I needed to know.

Where to go, what institutional help was available, taxes, regulations — there was so much I needed to learn about these things when I was just starting, and I made a lot of mistakes while I was learning.

I came to the United States in 2001 from Argentina with a backpack and $300 in my pocket. I had no dream of opening a restaurant at that point; I just knew I wanted a better life. I was so tired of seeing my family struggling, and I wanted something different.

Opening a restaurant, for me, was something of a necessity. After I was here for a few years, I really missed my food. I started making empanadas at home for my family, and soon my Argentinian friends were buying them. They loved my empanadas, and I thought, maybe I could open an empanada business here.

I did some research. I was introduced to the local Small Business Development Center, and I took a class on drafting a business plan.

I didn’t even know what a business plan was.

There were so many things I didn’t know. Like taxes, I didn’t know how to do them. I tried. I followed an example I thought was right, but it wasn’t, and I got in trouble with the IRS.

At the same time, you don’t have money when you’re starting a business, and that made this whole thing worse. I had no $10,000 cushion in the bank, so I was constantly looking for cheaper options on everything. This made my problem with taxes worse. I thought I could do it alone, but I couldn’t. I eventually got some help, but I didn’t have the best representation. That was a big problem.

I came to the United States in 2001 from Argentina with a backpack and $300 in my pocket.

The Lesson:

You have to learn as much as you can.

In the restaurant industry, everyone you talk to wants to open a bar or restaurant. It is the dream of many, but not so many get to that point, let alone through the barriers of the first and second years.

The biggest secret to success in this industry is not being afraid. Go to another restaurateur, tell them you want to open a restaurant and ask how they did it.

Sometimes restaurateurs are shy about sharing recipes, but don’t think that extends to business practices. I would share my recipe for shaping a business. I’m happy to say, for a good service, you need to pay. Pay for a good accountant and a good lawyer. I wish I could go back and do that differently myself.

Basically, the best advice I can give is this: Don’t try to create something from zero when it’s already there. Don’t try to do everything by yourself. If you do some research, you will find the right people to help you.

Take advantage of their knowledge and expertise.

Photo by Victor Arango courtesy of Maria Empanada.

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