Ariell Ilunga, owner of Carla’s Fresh Market (Katrina Frederick)

On Nov. 29, Black American founder Arielle Ilunga officially opened the new Carla’s Fresh Market in Los Angeles’ Highland Park. The first of its kind neighborhood grocery store, it redefines the neighborhood grocery store, providing access to high-quality, fresh produce and thoughtfully made food products prepared by BIPOC growers and small businesses to areas often overlooked and underserved.

Prior to becoming a grocery store owner, Ilunga’s experience was developed by working as a manager of the Hollywood Farmer’s Market for five years. Much like a local open-air market delivering fresh produce to food deserts, Carla’s sources are primarily from Californian farmers, artisans, and food makers.

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“It wasn’t as challenging finding Brown or Latino farmers as it was finding Black farmers. Most of the people who grow our food in Southern California are Brown. If they are not the direct owner of the land, they are most certainly in the field,” Ilunga explained to the Los Angeles Sentinel. She typically sources from small family farms from around California that cultivate on less than five acres, restocking on a weekly basis from producers and suppliers such as Weiser Family Farms, Rick’s Seasonal Produce, and Sunrise Organic Farm.

LaShea Delaney showcases the vast selection of wine and beer. (Katrina Frederick)

Attuned to the shift in the neighborhood, Ilunga is committed to empowering those who work with her, offering training for transferable skills, higher wages, and hiring directly from the community, those with and without experience. The grocery store is currently hiring baristas and cashiers and is starting with a team of eight employees.

“Even if you have little to no experience as a barista, we will still meet with you. I’m looking for a vibe and culture fit. I have a team of lovely young people who are curious about food and want to learn more. I am seeking job candidates who are warm, personable and can make authentic, personal connections with the customer. I want those who have an entrepreneurial spirit, autonomy and are willing to go on this fantastic voyage,” summed up Illunga about her hiring preferences.

Recognizing that food is a beautiful unifier, the style of the space is as vibrant and aesthetically pleasing to the eye as the food selection designed with colorful walls, woven light fixtures, and plenty of comfortable seating to rest and restore with a cup of coffee, matcha, and fresh pastries from LA Pastry Chef Sasha Pilligian. The Wine Shop is even Black woman driven with its sommelier showcasing a vast selection of wine and beer curated by LaShae Delaney, whom she found through a Google search.

The results led to a meeting over winetasting and sisterhood bonding before deciding upon featuring small, minority-owned winemakers motivated by the quest for socioeconomic justice through supplier diversity. Delaney previously created the wine lists for several of Los Angeles’ celebrated restaurants, including Kismet, Tartine, OTOTO and Tsubaki. The rotating selection by season highlights California brewers and smaller, organic and sustainable winemakers from across the world.

As a mother of two, Ilunga created a safe space with convenience, quality, and accessibility in mind. She named the grocery store after her friend Carla, who passed away during the pandemic and whose words of encouragement kept her motivated to never give up.

Carla’s Fresh Market features a wide variety of products by BIPOC farmers. (Katrina Frederick)

Unlike the specialty food stores and mini-marts across the city, Carla’s site at 3,000 square feet prioritizes needs over novelty. Shoppers can stock their fridges, fill their pantry, shelve wine and beer, and grab coffee and sandwiches all in one trip. Product mixing of the familiar with the unfamiliar and sampling is the pathway to encouraging customers to try something new.

“The space is very welcoming. Once inside a friendly staff is key to providing a hospitable customer experience while introducing shoppers to new products,” said Ilunga, whose vision is to make a large impact on local communities by providing a dynamic food source and lending its platform as a place of discovery.

Beef, pork, and chicken are sourced from a variety of purveyors including Peads & Barnett and Creme Co., along with a small selection of seafood from a sustainable wholesale purveyor. Pantry items include condiments, olive oils and all kinds of vinegars, salts and spices, preserves and spreads, chocolates and sweets, beans and rice, and other essentials. Featured brands include Woon, Burlap & Barrel, New York Shuk, Fly By Jing, Bearclaw Kitchen, JahMama Sauce, and a wide selection of staple brands.

The market will also have a section for flowers, gifts, body and self-care items. There is even a coffee bar featuring classic drinks that exclusively use Counter Culture Coffee beans with a stand up bar to enjoy on site. A grab-and-go counter includes pastries, sandwiches, and other baked goods from local bakeries like Bub & Grandma’s and Clark Street. Carla’s also has plans to assemble and sell prepared meals for individuals and families.

On Friday, Dec. 15, Carla’s Fresh Market, located at 248 North Avenue 50 in Los Angeles, is teaming up with Talia Shipman of the beloved Social Hummus – the best ethically-made, small batch, ultra-creamy, whipped hummus for a Holiday Hummus Social Party from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. Normal operating hours are from Wednesday through Sunday, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.

She has truly thought of everything to make Carla’s Fresh Market a one-stop shop destination for all.