“I don’t think that retail will ever die,” says Ariell Ilunga, the owner of the soon-to-open Carla’s Fresh Market in Highland Park. After years of building connections in Los Angeles, the native Angeleno and former Hollywood Farmers Market curator will debut her vision of what an inclusive neighborhood market can be later this month at the corner of North Avenue 50 and Monte Vista Street. Ilunga aspires to expand the market to more neighborhoods across the city in the future.
Ilunga worked as a fashion publicist in New York City before returning to her hometown in 2016, settling in El Sereno, and taking a job with Sustainable Economic Enterprises of Los Angeles (SEE-LA), the nonprofit organization that runs the Hollywood Farmers Market. Her primary job at the popular Sunday gathering was to bring in local food businesses, ones that shared the same ethos as the market’s dedicated farmers, to vend along Selma Avenue. Under Ilunga’s tenure, some upstarts that were still in their infancy at the time, like Bub & Grandma’s and Maury’s Bagels, came into the market’s fold, built a loyal following, and established themselves as community staples.
The idea to open a neighborhood market was inspired by this work, through which she often interacted with growers, sampled the season’s bounty, and learned more about the city’s complex food systems. As a mother of two young children, Ilunga saw a need to expand access to farmers market-quality produce beyond weekly events that can be difficult for families to fit into their busy schedules. “There is a distinct difference between produce picked the night before, which is alive and vibrating, versus it coming from far away and trucked in,” she says.
After identifying a gap in the market, Ilunga began researching the feasibility of opening a store in 2018 and wrote the business plan upon leaving SEE-LA in 2019. When a $250,000 grant from LISC LA’s patient capital initiative Asset Building for Communities of Color (ABC) came through, Ilunga was able to finally make Carla’s Fresh Market a reality.
Carla’s Fresh Market (named after Ilunga’s close college friend Carla Anderson, who died of cancer in 2020) brings together the utility of a big-box grocery store, the whimsy of a well-curated shoppy shop, and the peak freshness of farmers markets. A third of the items lining the shelves are recognizable “known clean labels,” like Straus Family Creamery and Vital Farms, while the rest of the nearly 700 products are sourced from local farmers, artisans, and purveyors, like granola from Bearclaw Kitchen and sauces from the restaurant Woon. Ilunga tapped sommelier LaShea Delaney (formerly of Kismet, Tartine, Ototo, and Tsubaki) to curate the shop’s wine and beer selection.
Carla’s Fresh Market is meant to be a one-stop shop. Ilunga imagines customers coming in to pick up everyday items like a bottle of Heinz ketchup, or a bunch of carrots from Weiser Family Farms and a loaf of bread from Clark Street Bakery. “I’m realistic, I’m not a foodie for the sake of being a foodie, I’m a Black American mom,” Ilunga says. “We’re feeding families. We need value, we need accessibility, we need ease, and then there’s a time to layer in some special stuff that delights you and makes you happy and makes life less awful.” Also situated within the market is a coffee bar brewing Counter Culture Coffee beans, August Uncommon Tea, and Tekuno matcha, with pastries by Sasha Piligian. A grab-and-go deli section with takeaway sandwiches and prepared foods is also on hand.
Ilunga says she is aware of Highland Park’s rapid gentrification and seeks to serve the greater community by hiring locally and paying above minimum wage. Half of the market’s dozen or so staffers live close enough to walk to work. All employees are hired regardless of prior job experience and given training for hands-on, transferable skills, including barista work, and beer and wine curation. “I’m not going to use you up and burn you out,” says Ilunga. “I’m going to empower you.”
For lower-income Highland Park residents, Carla’s Fresh Market will accept EBT as a form of payment and hold a Sunday “happy hour” that provides discounted produce. The store’s overall pricing reflects Ilunga’s margins and “what it takes to run the business, not more,” she says. “I’m not going to raise prices unless vendors raise prices.”
The 3,000-square-foot space that served as Monte Mart Market for the past 15 years has been completely redesigned by Alexis Roohani. At once functional yet warm and communal, the market features vibrant colors, wooden beams, and speckled green and pink terrazzo tiled countertops.
“I always envisioned a smaller store and it would just be me working in it. But that is not my calling,” says Ilunga. “This is where I’m supposed to be.”
Carla’s Fresh Market, located at 248 N. Avenue 50, Los Angeles, CA 90042, is open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday.