Thanks for reading Chatham County’s leading news source! Making high quality community journalism isn’t free — please consider supporting our journalism by subscribing to the News + Record today.
Unlimited Digital Access: $3.99 for 1 month, $39 for 1 year.
PITTSBORO — Less than a block away from Pittsboro’s historic courthouse, two young Mexican immigrants have baked something new out of an old recipe.
For nearly two years, Carolina Cravings served up southern delicacies from 84 Hillsboro Street to Pittsboro’s community and beyond. Now, Carolina Cravings is under new management — and co-owners Yeraldyn Martinez and Iliana Jesús Escalante-Palacios have a different vision for their new business.
“We’re trying to involve both communities — the Hispanic community and other (wider) community,” Escalante-Palacios told the News + Record. “... We’re trying to do both recipes, like pecan pie or pie bars, and then involving Hispanic bread. We just want our community and this community coming together.”
From outside the bakery, it looks as if nothing’s changed. The same awning roof juts out from the brick storefront. The same two storefront windows showcase miscellaneous decorations, and of course, the bakery still boasts the same name.
Inside’s a different story. Instead of a rich red, the walls are now a light pink. The furniture’s all been rearranged, and the goodies on sale offer customers a bicultural blend.
In the back, Escalante-Palacios bakes with her sister Angeles, who she calls her “second mom,” and Martinez’s mother, Maria, or “Mama Coco.” Up front, Martinez greets new customers and gives those willing a little tour of the shop.
“I love talking to everybody — like brightening up their day,” Martinez said. “I love sharing those social media posts, taking the pictures. Everybody that comes in, you know, like, ‘Hey,’ I give them like a little tour of the store, and make them feel like they’re at home.”
On display up front, you might see the “perfect brownie,” apple strudel muffins and lemon bars — but you'll also see pan dulce, or sweet bread. Between muffins and lemon bars lie vanilla and chocolate conchas, Mexican sweets that look like seashells.
Next to a batch of M&M cookies, you might find yoyos, two domes of sweet bread stuck together with pastry filling. Sometimes, they’ll also have bolillos, Mexican savory bread. In another part of the store, customers can find birthday cakes as well as an assortment of truffles and macaroons.
And that’s not all they plan to offer, either.
“We’re trying to put food in here as well, but we just haven’t got to that step yet,” Escalante-Palacios said, adding, “But right now, it’s mostly cakes, and Mexican bread, or Hispanic bread.”
She also said they’re looking to bake chocolates, expand their coffee options and sell fresh fruit creations. They’d like to add churros to the menu, too.
“The yoyos are a great hit — and the conchas,” she added. “So we’re trying to involve more of that. We’re trying to put orejas (palmiers), chocoflan, regular flan. We’re trying to do mantecadas (Mexican muffins).”
Beyond bicultural, Carolina Cravings has also become bilingual. Inside the store, people speak both English and Spanish; many signs, too, are in both languages and most of the bakery's social media posts pass along messages in English and Spanish. On several recent Facebook posts, half of the comments are in English; the other half’s in Spanish.
Below a recent post about bolillos, one person commented in Spanish, “Delicious those. They taste like the Mexican ones.”
So far, Escalante-Palacios said she and Martinez have seen a blend of customers come in from both communities — Hispanic and otherwise. That, she said, has perhaps been the biggest change from the old Carolina Cravings, where she used to work.
“It’s really good seeing a lot of these families coming because they wouldn’t do that whenever it was just Carolina Cravings,” Escalante-Palacios said. “And then I think us advertising in both languages and our family advertising brought more of the community here, like from Sanford, from Siler City. ... Hispanics (are) coming here for their coffee, for their cafecito en la mañana con el pan.”
Slipping into Spanish, she added, “I love to see that.”
The new Carolina Cravings first opened on Feb. 13 — but both owners can trace their partnership back to a snap decision to chat in church nearly a year and a half ago.
Escalante-Palacios and Martinez, both 23, were born in Mexico. From a little town in Guerrero, Escalante-Palacios immigrated to the U.S. with her family when she was 10. She grew up in Sanford. Likewise, Martinez was born in Zacatecas, but came to the U.S. when she was 11. She grew up in Pittsboro.
They both attend Pittsboro’s only Hispanic church, Iglesia Bautista Misionera Roca Fuerte, and first began talking to each other in late 2019.
“I used to see her all the time at church, but I never spoke to her,” Escalante-Palacios said. “And then (2019), that’s when we started speaking to each other.”
Both also had baking connections: Martinez’s mother worked at the Phoenix Bakery in Pittsboro, Carolina Cravings’ cousin company, and taught Escalante-Palacios a few recipe tips after she started working at Carolina Cravings in late 2019.
The pandemic set it all in motion.
“From what I knew, at that moment, is that the business wasn’t doing so great because of the pandemic, and the owner at the same time decided to look for another opportunity outside of that business,” she said, adding, “And that’s whenever they told me, ‘Hey, it’s not working so well, so we’re trying to close it down.’”
Soon after, Carolina Cravings’ previous owners decided to sell the business or rent it out — and that’s when they offered it to Escalante-Palacios and Martinez’s mother.
“My mom told me about it,” Martinez said. “... She doesn’t want the responsibility of owning a business. She said that she was going to help us do it, but she doesn’t want that on her shoulders. She thought of us.”
Both had always dreamt of owning their own business, too, so once the opportunity arose — they seized it.
“It’s a great opportunity,” Escalante-Palacios said, adding, “I was actually scared because I saw the business during the pandemic. And I was scared, like, what if it doesn’t work out, you know? What if this? What if that? But (Martinez is) like, ‘We can try it.’”
They sealed the deal on Feb. 8, and opened just five days later at 7 a.m., a day before Valentine’s Day.
“It took us less than a week for us to open, which is incredible,” Martinez said, laughing. “I’m like, ‘I’ve never worked so hard in my life. I’ve never cleaned so hard in my life.’”
“It was crazy,” Escalante-Palacios added.
They’ve received a lot of support to get to this point, they said, both from their families, the previous owners and the wider Pittsboro community.
“Even though we’re still in a pandemic and the construction is going on, the Pittsboro community has been very supportive of everybody, like the Virlie’s (Grill) and all the local people,” Martinez said. “They have been sharing our posts, coming and checking on us, making sure that we’re OK, and just like checking the place out. They enjoy all the changes that we have done.”
There’s one particular store that eased their worries about opening, too, Martinez added, and that’s Tienda Hispana El Rayo on 119 Hillsboro Street, a shop she and Escalante-Palacios said they also hope to support.
“I know that they were brave enough to jump in business like during the pandemic,” Martinez said. “... That made me a little bit more comfortable that the Hispanic store was already here, and that opened a door for us to come in and offer our Hispanic treats as well.”
So far, both have enjoyed working together, baking treats and meeting new people. Despite worries over the pandemic and Pittsboro traffic circle construction, they’re glad they took the risk. And even if the business didn’t — or doesn’t — work out, both said they’d just find something else and keep on trying.
“We were not going to stop here and just, you know, leave it. We were going to look for something together as well,” said Escalante-Palacios, adding, “If it doesn’t work out, we can try something else. I think that’s the main thing — just having faith.”
Reporter Victoria Johnson can be reached at email@example.com.