Movers & Shakers: Food/Beverage

Each year, Cary Magazine honors young people who are making a lasting impact in Western Wake, whether they are entrepreneurs or educators, artists or advocates. Among this year’s honorees are five professionals who are shaking up the food and beverage industry.

Jill Santa Lucia

President, Catering Works + Culinary Director and Popcorn Visionary, Ella’s Popcorn

Jill Santa Lucia knows that when it comes to owning and operating a business — especially one in the “risky” food industry — “it’s all about how we respond.” For this caterer, who started her business at the tender age of 22, and who wasn’t without her fair share of “doubters” along the way, no other time provided an opportunity to respond as did the pandemic.

Propelled by the personal fear of whether she would have to sell her house and “lose everything,” including her girls’ future goals like college, when she woke up to the “nightmare” of realizing that because she wasn’t a necessary business, she was “out of luck,” Santa Lucia knew she had to be creative with her response.

Despite uncertainty she describes as “soul crushing” when she was not only forced to stop working but faced refunding thousands of dollars in future deposits for weddings and corporate functions — and all while fielding calls from people who were asking, “Are you going to make it?” — Santa Lucia started making personal family meals for employees and customers, then made videos to share with customers and the US Department of Health and Human Services to illustrate how safe work could continue. Like other businesses, to “keep busy and stay relevant,” Zoom became the preferred medium for cooking classes.

“If we can’t sell food,” Santa Lucia knew, “we need to have something to sell that doesn’t require face-to-face contact,” and Ella’s Popcorn was born. Soon, popcorn trio boxes were being used by loyal catering clients to connect with their teams and customers. And while existing customers’, as well as friends’ and family members’ support and loyalty, was crucial, the challenge showed Santa Lucia and her team “how resilient we are.” Not all risks can be managed, but how we respond is always within our power.

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Katsuji Tanabe

Culinary Innovator, a’Verde Cocina + Tequila Library and LM Restaurants

Sometimes, it comes down to refusing to take no for an answer. Tanabe may rely on a top-notch team, and practice honesty as a professional credo, but without diligence and determination — and pure grit to continue in the face of rejection and odds that seem overwhelmingly stacked against him — Tanabe wouldn’t be living in the place where he plans to die and bringing his self-described “crazy cooking” to the community that has welcomed him unlike no other since he arrived in the US with nothing more than a dream.

For Tanabe, the 11th time is a charm. How many successful chef-restaurateurs would continue to apply for Top Chef — while witnessing friends and colleagues achieve a spot —

after rejection season after season? When he did appear, on the popular show’s 12th season, and after already winning the Food Network’s Chopped, he was named a runner-up and went on to appear on Top Chef Mexico and as a judge on Master Chef Mexico — emotional feats for a chef who was born and raised in Mexico City.

Sometimes, as Chef Katsuji demonstrates, rejection is just redemption waiting in the wings.

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Tiffany Welton

Owner, RBF, Your Authentic Champagne Bar

“The biggest blessing,” according to Welton and when it comes to her business’s living wage model, is “the cohesiveness of our team.”

When there is no competitiveness over tables or sections, and team members simply “help one another with a lot of laughs, hugs, and friendships” — and even in an industry with a historically high staff turnover rate — the professional rests on the personal.

And this is precisely how Welton wants it. “I know RBF is a pit stop for most of our staff in their careers,” she explains. With most employees being part-time, and who may also have full-time employment and want to make a little extra money working for her, and regardless of the amount of time Welton gets with them, “I want my staff to leave RBF with more than when they started. We talk about their current roles, how we can best support them, how to continue growing and developing, how to create boundaries or have tough conversations …”

This is achieved by Welton speaking openly and honestly about her own past and current personal highs (and lows) to give the team insight into her own journey. In turn, team members allow her into their lives and give her the privilege of being a confidant and mentor, and at times a shoulder to lean on.

Which is why Welton’s hope that “they all walk away knowing their value, how to stand up for themselves and for others, and that someone will always have their back … even after they no longer are employed at my business” is more than just aspirational.

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Libby Azzarello

Co-Owner, Bumble Brews Raleigh + Realtor, At Home with Libby and Choice Residential Real Estate

For a multi-tasker like Libby Azzarello, it’s perhaps not surprising that her current goal relates to what she describes as “one of the most pivotal points in my personal development.” When Azzarello discovered that she had ADHD, so many questions were answered — and much of the “overwhelm and frustration” she experienced as a teen and young adult was healed.

Aware that ADHD in girls and women is extremely under-researched, Azzarello is currently working to create resources to help girls and women “better understand their brains.” There are so many facets of ADHD that Azzarello credits as supporting her success as an entrepreneur; she believes that “if young girls are empowered to explore their talents and the upsides of their diagnosis, they could avoid a lot of common emotions like anxiety, lack of self-confidence, and feeling lost.”

Azzarello hopes to reach high-schoolers, college women, and recent graduates and “help them realize how their divergent thinking can be an asset, how to manage the more difficult parts, and to know they’re not alone.”

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Jennifer Zewe

Owner, Artful Libations and RallyPoint Sport Grill

“Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life,” says the adage attributed to everyone from Confucius to Mark Twain. But as far as Jennifer Zewe is concerned, they have it backward.

She urges others pursuing a side hustle to “Start by identifying your passions and strengths and channel that energy into creating something truly unique — something that brings you pure joy — because it will be the hardest you have ever worked.”

Zewe started as a server at Cary’s RallyPoint Sport Grill when she moved to Raleigh in 2012. In 2017, a regular asked her to bartend his wedding. Thus her side hustle, Artful Libations — which has blossomed into a thriving bartending business with 180 events on the books in 2024 — was born.

As her bartending business grew, she continued working at RallyPoint. When she realized she would need a storefront, she realized, “what better than the bar that I helped grow over the past 11 years?”

Now, as owner of two hospitality businesses, Zewe is taking steps toward her ultimate dream of playing poker professionally. But despite her poker face, her core value shines through: “Be kind and a ray of sunshine to people — always!”

Jennifer Zewe written by Tara Shiver

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Find the full list of 2024 Movers & Shakers here.

Celebrate their accomplishments with a fun evening of food and drinks at the Movers & Shakers Party.

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