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Ariell Ilunga had a fervent vision. The Los Angeles native wanted to open a Black-owned one-stop grocery store that provided fresh, high-quality foods. Her father was an avid foodie who exposed her palate to a variety of foods, which allowed her to develop a taste for quality cuisine.
“He would clip newspaper articles out of the LA Weekly and take us to new restaurants,” says Ilunga. “In 2019, I was working for a nonprofit organization doing food access work, and I just wanted to open up a grocery store for a lot of reasons, so I quit my job of six years to pretty much work on this project full-time.”
Ilunga knew that the cumbersome process of her project would come with tremendous challenges and the need for substantial funding. “It was $100,000 and it is pretty challenging to come up with that kind of money. And then the pandemic came and I was very discouraged,” she reveals. “I am overworked, a mom of two small kids and suddenly I saw myself being every woman.”
Feeling disenchanted with an overwhelming sense of despair, Ilunga put the project down. “I remember distinctly sitting in my backyard drinking a bourbon at 3 pm while my kids were running around,” she recalls.
“My best friend from college, Carla, had passed away and had lost her battle with uterine cancer. I was in a phase of grieving her death and discouraged about the project. Suddenly, Carla’s voice comes through as clear as day saying, “You better get back to work; you can’t give up.”
And that is exactly what Ilunga did, literally. “So, I picked myself up and got back to work,” says the former employee of Sustainable Economics Enterprises of Los Angeles.
“I did not have a name for the project and I wanted it to feel familiar. I wanted the name to feel like home and not be a trendy thing.” Ilunga pondered on what to name her community-focused establishment.
While having a conversation with her mother one evening, her mother suggested to name it Carla’s Fresh Market. “I thought that was the best idea ever,” Illunga says. “It is named after a really good friend who always believed in me and keeps me going.”
Carla’s Fresh Market is Open for Business
Nestled in a 3,000-square-foot building, the one-stop shop’s vibrant color decorum exudes a warm and inviting ambiance. It entails striking persimmon walls, whimsical checkerboard floor tiles and countertops sprinkled with shimmering green and pink terrazzo tiles. The showstopping Oxblood ceiling features wooden beams that match the rich wooden furniture, as the natural woven pendant lights add personality to the lively space that opened on November 29, 2023.
Housed in Los Angeles’ Highland Park, Carla’s Fresh Market offers a plethora of baked goods, a coffee bar, condiments and other essentials, garden-fresh produce from Weiser Family Farms, Sunrise Organic Farm and Rick’s Seasonal Produce, chicken, pork and seafood from a variety of purveyors, including Peads & Barnetts and Crème Co Meats and a vast selection of beer and wine.
“My favorite part is picking all of the things that go in the store,” says the entrepreneur. “I learned a lot about agriculture from running farmers markets and spending a great deal of time on farms. Most of the produce comes from 2-4 hours outside of Los Angeles, which is a radius around L.A.”
She continues, “For my coffee bar, I decided to partner with this North Carolina company, Counter Culture, and they are just a roaster. They have trained our team on how to use the machine. For the grocery aisles, I am working with a mixture of 50 -75 smaller distributors such as Jah Mama Sauce, Burlap & Barrel, Bearclaw Kitchen and Woon.
“I have partnered with sommelier LaShae Delaney and she runs the beer and wine program. She knows a great deal about wine and works at some of the best restaurants in L.A.” The rotating selection by season will highlight California brewers and smaller, organic and sustainable winemakers from across the world.
Passionate about championing access, she says, “I thought about women like me who love food and are so tired of going to three different grocery stores to get everything we need,” states Ilunga.
“I wanted to create that ease, have specialty items that are going to add more flavor and make meals more interesting. That is what we are trying to do here. Whatever you need is all here, and it stops people from having to go to different stores to get what they need for the week.”
Navigating Uncharted Territory
Being a Black woman navigating the uncharted territory of owning a grocery store can be quite challenging and daunting, but it is paramount for our young, impressionable Black females, as well as others, to observe that it can be accomplished.
Our narratives often entail us traversing the perils of gendered racism while on the trajectory of our professional goals. “One of those moments where it hit me how important this work is was when I attended Expo West, a giant trade show in Los Angeles that happens twice a year,” says the alumnus of Savannah College of Art & Design.
“All of these distributors, brands and brokers in the food and grocery business are there to find out what’s new and hot in food. I was walking the halls of that show, and I could not have felt more isolated, insignificant, different and unimportant. The predominant population was middle-aged to older White men. I thought that women were the ones who made the food purchases and decided what to feed their families,” says the Carla’s Fresh Market founder.
“The industry is disproportionately White-male dominated,” she affirms. “I thought this didn’t make sense and I just knew that my perspective really mattered. Just from that standpoint, I feel like I bring a different and unique point of view to the grocery industry and to the food space. I have something to offer that is currently not out there simply because my lived experience is so different from the predominant culture.”
Carla’s Fresh Market is located at 248 N Ave 50 in Los Angeles and is open Wednesday – Sunday from 8 am – 8 pm. Visit the website for more information and inquiries about how to get your products on the shelves. You can also follow along on social media via Instagram.