Carla’s Fresh Market opens this week in Highland Park, the first-of-its-kind neighborhood grocery store, from Black American founder Ariell Ilunga. The colorful space is as vibrant as its owner, with its food selection, woven light fixtures, and plenty of comfortable seating to enjoy a cup of coffee, matcha, and fresh pastries from Sasha Pilligian.
The reimagined neighborhood grocery store reflects the time Ilunga spent running the prepared food section of the Hollywood Farmers Market. The 3,000-square-foot space features products from Weiser Family Farms, Rick’s Seasonal Produce, and Sunrise Organic Farm. Beef, pork and chicken are sourced from a variety of purveyors including Autonomy Farms and Peads & Barnett and a small selection of sustainable seafood. Pantry items include condiments, olive oils and vinegars, salts and spices, preserves and spreads, chocolates and sweets, beans and rice.
Other featured brands include Burlap & Barrel, New York Shuk, Luisa Abram, Tamalitoz, Primary Beans, Brooklyn Delhi, Bearclaw Kitchen and JahMama Sauce. The market also will have a section for locally grown flowers from Bloomtown Flowers Co., gifts, and body and self-care items. The one-stop shop also includes a sommelier-driven bottle shop from LaShea Delaney featuring small, minority-owned winemakers.
“I’m an LA girl and this is where my family landed,” the mother of two and El Sereno resident tells L.A. Weekly. “As a small business owner, I have a responsibility to the community, and that’s why I source the way I do, from local farmers and a lot of women of color. It’s important to me to strengthen our food supply chain and to support those businesses. We were really intentional about hiring. My second in command is a Latina from Lincoln Heights and the majority of the staff lives within walking distance of the store. I wanted to create a warm and vibrant space.”
And it was the vibrancy of Highland Park that prompted the Arlington Heights native to open her store on North Avenue 50 in North East Los Angeles – the different cultures, religions, food and stress-free parking all made it a good fit. Ilunga loves the fact that houses in the neighborhood are close together and says it just feels cozy.
But who’s Carla?
“Carla and I met in college at the Savannah College of Art and Design,” says Ilunga. “We got our masters in fashion design and became fast friends. She was a little older than me and scooped me up to buy fabrics and art supplies. She was a champion who was always there to help and see the good and potential in everyone. We kept in contact over the years and it was one of those friendships where you could go a year without talking and just pick up where you left off. She was such a supportive person in my corner during life’s ups and downs. She was that lighthouse that I needed. Just before COVID, she passed away from uterine cancer in her mid-40s. She had been battling it for a while and didn’t want to have the surgery they recommended.
“I was pretty devastated and tailspinned at that point,” she says. “Then three days later, the entire world changed and I didn’t have my friend to reach out to, my anchor. I had already started this project and left my nonprofit job to pursue my own business and find a way to raise a lot of money. It was overwhelming. I was sitting in my backyard one afternoon drinking bourbon at 3 o’clock in the afternoon and this voice came through clear as day, and it was Carla. ‘You need to get back to work and never give up out there,’ it said. So about two days later I pulled myself together and went full speed ahead. When it came time to open the doors, it only made sense to call it Carla’s Market. She keeps me going. I didn’t want the name to be trendy or hip. It’s just a real neighborhood market.”
Carla’s Fresh Market is located at 248 North Avenue 50, opening hours are from Wednesday through Sunday, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.
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