Q&A: Maria Empanada founder on Tuesday visit by Vice President Harris

Vice President Kamala Harris, center, and her husband Doug Emhoff met with Lorena Cantarovici and other business owners at Maria Empanada’s South Broadway location on Tuesday. (Courtesy of Maria Empanada)

Vice President Kamala Harris took a seat at Maria Empanada’s table on Tuesday.

As part of the Biden Administration’s efforts to promote the $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill that was signed last week, Harris, her husband Doug Emhoff and other officials launched a “Help is Here” tour, which started in Las Vegas on Monday and came to Colorado on Tuesday.

Harris sat down for an hour at Maria Empanada’s South Broadway location with four business owners:

• Jack Briggs, CEO of the Colorado Springs-based nonprofit Springs Rescue Mission;

• Gabriela Salazar, owner of the Denver-based gift shop Colorado Artisan Center;

• Lalitha Chittoor, owner of Boulder-based Eco All Trading, which trades stainless steel and copper products;

• And Lorena Cantarovici, founder of Maria Empanada.

“The best part was that she came to listen,” Cantarovici told BusinessDen. “Vice President Harris wanted to hear about how we were doing before COVID, how the pandemic affected us and how we are doing now. She did a beautiful introduction, and then let us bring our different perspectives from struggling industries.”

The vice president’s office reached out directly to Cantarovici, she said, and asked her to host the discussion with a recommendation from Gov. Jared Polis, who also joined the discussion, and Colorado’s U.S. senators.

Cantarovici was named Colorado’s Small Business Person of the Year in 2017. She immigrated from Argentina to the U.S. in 2009 and began making empanadas in her home kitchen that next year. She expanded into catering after she received a 60-empanada order in 2011, and now Maria Empanada has five locations in Denver.

Lorena Cantarovici, founder of Maria Empanada, said she welcomes the financial help for restaurant owners contained in the COVID relief bill signed last week. (BusinessDen file)

BusinessDen spoke with Cantarovici after the event.

BusinessDen: When did you first hear about the opportunity to host Vice President Harris and what was your initial reaction?

Cantarovici: “We heard that she was coming to town yesterday and had selected Maria Empanada to host the event, but we didn’t know how. It was a huge surprise, and everything happened so fast. People from the Secret Service just started popping up; everyone was getting COVID tests; and we had to quickly decide when to close to the public.”

“I felt an immediate sense of pride. Nothing was given to me the easy way. All of the recognition is because of all the effort from me and my team every day. COVID completely affected us, like every other business. But our people is what keeps us alive.”

BD: What was the biggest concern that you and other Colorado small business owners discussed with Harris?

Cantarovici: “The necessity to have this relief distributed now. It’s an immediate need.”

BD: Tell me how Maria Empanada was affected by the pandemic.

Cantarovici: “We are still recovering every day. Having two or three tables occupied in restaurants doesn’t make any sense. We need a rotation of volume to have a good day. The pandemic is still here, including restrictions, and so are expenses.”

“Sales went down 85 percent at the height of the pandemic, and they are still down around 30 percent. We were just able to reopen our Platte Street location after a year of it being closed, but two of our stores (in the Denver Tech Center and Broadway Market) are still shut down because of the pandemic.”

BD: Although the legislation was signed just last week for the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, what does this mean for Maria Empanada?

Cantarovici: “The American Rescue Plan is going to create a very big impact on all small restaurants because it’s going to be a grant, not a loan, which is already some great peace of mind. Small businesses have been struggling to figure out how to apply for relief and what percentage we get, but they will just provide this money to us.”

“These funds are going to help me bring parts of my team back. We had more than 50 employees before COVID but had to lay off 28 and make pay cuts. We will also use the money to renegotiate payments to landlords and providers as well.”

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