CEO Spotlight: Q&A With Lorena Cantarovici Of Maria Empanada
Lorena Cantarovici is the CEO & Founder of Maria Empanada: a Denver-based restaurant chain that earned national recognition as the leading brand of artisan empanadas in only six years. She developed an on-trend, differentiated, and highly scalable craft casual food concept, and currently has 50 employees. Lorena is the force behind Maria Empanada, originally coming to Denver from Argentina with $300 in her pocket and not a word of English; convinced that everything could be accomplished through hard work and perseverance.
What was the original idea or pain point that inspired you to start your business?
Nostalgia. That was the original feeling that inspired me to start my business. I missed my country, its people, its food. I wanted to bring a piece of it to my new home in Denver.
I came to the U.S. with $300 in my pocket and a backpack full of dreams. Packed in that a backpack was my knowledge of cuisine. I have been cooking since childhood and empanada-making was my specialty because it is what I find most fun to make.
Maria Empanada was born during a very difficult time. I cannot sit still when facing difficulty – I had to do something! Opening a business is terrifying and it was that difficult time that pushed me through it.
I started from my tiny kitchen, before moving into my garage. My brand is now worth millions. Nowadays I say that the original reason for Maria Empanada was that I wanted to work in what I call the “economy of nostalgia.”
What is Maria Empanada?
We make artisan empanadas. The best in the country. But what we are also doing is creating a new category – artisan empanadas – in what is starting to be called “Craft Casual,” which is meant to show elevated food delivered quickly.
What aspect of your team or company culture are you most proud of?
From the very beginning, I realized that what we do and how we do it needs to be “Us” and it has to come from within and be authentic. For me, that feeling is encapsulated in “Buena Onda.” It translates from Spanish as “Good Vibe” or “Good Wave,” but that’s not all it means. To have Buena Onda is to positively relate. A person can have Buena Onda and a place can have it as well. It determines how we interact with our customers, our physical place of work and especially ourselves within the company. The phrase is brought up at every company meeting and it is constantly defined, discussed and it has become the benchmark of how we interact with one another and with others. It is such a powerful element in our company that we have a 90% employee retention rate – unheard of in the restaurant industry, particularly in this market!
What is the most important thing you're working on right now, and how are you making it happen?
The most important thing on my plate right now is deepening our skills and promoting various leadership roles from within the company. I’m spending a lot of time in this process and delegating up so I can have more time to do more and more CEO work. We now have 5 locations and there is lots of room to professionalize various roles – whether in marketing, human resources, operations and leadership positions within locations. We also have exciting developments going on in our kitchen, so I’m going to be spending a lot of time with new ideas and recipes that I’ve had on my mind for a long time.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve received as a CEO?
TAKE VACATIONS. That is my best advice. TAKE VACATIONS. Those two words – so fun and easy for most people – are very difficult and complicated for a CEO or owner. TAKE VACATIONS takes 3 different meanings depending on the moment: First, it implies planning, projecting and delegating; Second, it means disconnecting, enjoying and recharging; and, lastly, it means renewing, measuring and learning... Learning because it is important to understand that not everything depends on the CEO – the business will move forward if we have a good mix of processes and a team that is excellent and worthy of praise.
What has been the most meaningful aspect of your engagement with the Blackstone Entrepreneurs Network?
BEN’s impact in the entrepreneur community in Denver is built around the networking opportunities it creates: Events – learning and networking events – where we get to share best practices with others who hail from different disciplines and business sectors; access to advise and guidance –things that are hard to afford especially as a small business; a warm welcome – again, as a small business we are treated just like the big boys are, where our potential is recognized, not the size of our yearly take.
BEN is also a “place” – one where you don’t feel alone as a CEO. A CEO’s mistakes are not just mistakes. They are heavy burdens that you carry which have a hefty financial price. How do you smile the day after you lose $$$ due to a mistake? And how do you do it while practicing Buena Onda? That’s where and why I say that BEN makes you feel that YOU ARE NOT ALONE.
But, perhaps, the most meaningful aspect of our engagement with BEN is the incomparable, genuine, encouraging, attentive, and loving nature of Greg Greenwood!