From her Denver garage to D.C. — a “new American” success story

Lorena Cantarovici, owner of Maria Empanada, and Colorado Secretary of State Wayne Williams at her Greenwood Village store. She was named the 2017 Colorado Small Business Person of the Year. (SOS photo)

The 2017 Colorado Small Business Person of the Year on Tuesday welcomed Colorado Secretary of State Wayne Williams to her empanada store and offered advice for others thinking of following their dream.

“Don’t be afraid. Be fearless,” said Argentinian native Lorena Cantarovici, owner of Maria Empanada.

She still gets goosebumps when she thinks about going to Washington, D.C., this year to be honored by the U.S. Small Business Administration for being the state winner.

That’s quite a journey for an immigrant who arrived with less than $500 in her pocket and began making pastries for her friends out of her kitchen and garage, and ended up operating three stores in the metro area.

Williams visited Cantarovici’s store in Greenwood Village as a way to remind Coloradans that their nominations for the state’s 2018 Small Business Person of the Year are due next month.

“Part of why we’re here is the Secretary of State’s office is the office in which you form a business. We’ve got more than 660,000 businesses in Colorado and and we want to encourage people to think about what is that next Maria Empanada, the next small business success story that we should celebrate here in Colorado,” Williams said.

“One of the great things about America is the opportunity everyone has to succeed. You get to go the direction you want to. In some cases, you convince people to buy this thing called an empanada that they might not ever have heard of before.”

Some of the desserts sold at Maria Empanada. (SOS photo)

Empanadas are stuffed breads or pastries that are fried or baked. Cantarovici dreamt of them when she moved to Denver, and says on her website she knew if people tried them, they would love them.

“My only problem was that I was an accountant and former banker who never owned a restaurant,” her bio says.

“I didn’t speak English. I was in a country where there were no empanada customers, where the special dough to make empanadas could not be found. There was no money and no prospects to get money to begin such a thing.”

Cantarovici said it took seven months to perfect her dough, because she was trying to find the right mix for Denver’s dryness and altitude. Her creamy corn-stuffed empanada recently won an award, and a customer at the store Tuesday said it was her favorite. “Mine too,” the store clerk added.

The steak empanada includes red peppers. One of the dessert empanadas features bananas and chocolate.

Marie Empanada employs 30 people and sells 5,000 of the mouth-watering items a day.

“I hope everybody can have the opportunity I had,” she said. “It feels fantastic.”

Victor Arango is the director of marketing and communication for Maria Empanada, which operates stores on South Broadway in Denver, Greenwood Village and at the Stanley Marketplace in Aurora. He is Cantarovici’s head cheerleader, saying, “I’m super proud of her. That’s why I brag about her all day.”

Lorena Cantarovici talks to journalists about her journey baking goods in her garage to opening three stores in the metro area. Cantarovici, the owner of Maria Empanada, was named Colorado’s 2017 Small Business Person of the Year by the U.S. Small Business Administration. (SOS photo)

“As a new American, she has been an incredible role model for other new Americans like me. Just the fact that she came to this country with $350 and what she has built with sweat and tears is just remarkable,” he told journalists who covered the visit. “She is also known in Argentina as the Queen of Empanadas.”

CBS4, Univision and Telemundo interviewed the secretary of state and Cantarovici.

The business last month announced that it received up to $3.5 million in funding from the Colorado Impact Fund, a Denver-based venture capital firm that says on its website that it “invests in Colorado companies with high-growth, scalable business models and a commitment to make their community better in areas such as healthcare, education, and the environment.” She also has received SBA loans.

“Who is Maria?” Williams asked.

“That’s my mother,” Cantarovici said. “Everybody calls me Maria for a while.”

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NOMINATIONS: The U.S. Small Business Administration is seeking nominations for a variety of local awards, including Exporter of the Year and Subcontractor of the Year.  Information can be found in the Awards Guidelines. Mail or hand-deliver applications to the SBA Colorado District Office, 721 19th St., Suite 426, Denver, CO 80205, by 1 p.m. Tuesday, January 9, 2018. The awards will be announced next May.