Edna Morales opened The Meeting Corner because she had a passion for the Puerto Rican recipes she’d eaten with her grandparents. About three years later, though, she discovered that passion alone wouldn’t keep her in business.
Facing closure and lacking a business education, she reached out to other downtown businesses in Fuquay-Varina for help. Morales, who started her business as an outlet for her cooking hobby, was having too much fun to leave.
“In September of last year, my husband lost his job, and we’d never experienced that,” said Morales, 46. “It’s always been one of us working, and I was definitely not providing what he brought to the table, so then it did get harder. I realized I needed to change things, and I needed help in all aspects.”
The response to her call for help this spring was substantial, almost surprisingly so for a business that had only occupied its Main Street storefront for about three and a half years.
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It opened in 2012 as a handful of tables in the back of a consignment shop run by Morales’ business partner. Now the consignment shop is gone, replaced by tables and booths that are nearly always full for lunch and dinner.
Reanna Heath, a manager at Edna’s Café, said the handful of businesses that lent a hand “wanted to keep the real story about Edna and her dream” and asked that they not be named publicly.
Their generosity, though, has almost completely transformed the restaurant.
After a renovation that began in early May, Edna’s Café opened in June under a new name and a few coats of bright blue and green paint meant to evoke a tropical atmosphere, Morales said. Someone re-did the restaurant’s website and took professional photos of her food.
Morales also revamped her menu to make it easier to understand for first-timers – describing sorullitos, for instance, as “Puerto Rican hushpuppies.” She now offers alcohol, mostly in the form of cocktails.
The name change is just one of several that focus on Morales and her personality as part of the restaurant experience. Instead of spending her time in the kitchen, she’ll now make more of an effort to be visible behind the counter and among the tables, something Morales said doesn’t come naturally to her, despite her charisma and friendly disposition.
That’s important, said Naomi Riley, the executive director of the Fuquay-Varina Downtown Revitalization Association, who attributed the outpouring of support primarily to Morales’ popularity around town.
“Edna has always had an incredible following,” Riley said. “She is the face for the restaurant, so it was a perfect time for her to change the name, because everybody knows Edna.”
That so many business owners would invest in the continued presence and success of a Puerto Rican restaurant on the main drag of a formerly sleepy Southern town is evidence that Fuquay-Varina’s growth doesn’t just have to mean urban sprawl.
“Probably no one had been to Puerto Rico or known a Puerto Rican,” said Morales, who moved to Holly Springs 15 years ago. “But now they do.”
One of the central questions posed by rapid growth is how small towns can grow without compromising the qualities that made them so attractive to begin with. For Fuquay-Varina and its downtown advocacy organizations, the search for an answer has inspired efforts to preserve and promote the downtown businesses that lend the town so much of its character.
The Fuquay-Varina Downtown Revitalization Association began a movement in 2010 to encourage local shopping. Naomi Riley, its executive director, said people now make a conscious effort to come downtown when they can.
“(The Downtown Revitalization Association) started back around 2000 when sprawl and strip malls started happening, but that was happening all over the U.S. around that time,” Riley said. “What’s happened now is that people have started to shift and say that downtowns do matter. Our biggest challenge right now is that we don’t have enough empty storefronts.”
In Edna’s case, at least, success has also required adapting with the competition in mind. Heath said one of the key adjustments the restaurant made was to increase the efficiency of its kitchen to compete with some of the fast-food options that line the town’s commercial strip along North Main Street.
“(Morales) prides herself on freshness, and that’s another challenge, because you can’t get things out as fast as, say, Zaxby’s can,” Heath said. “She’s tweaked the menu just a little bit – she used to make big empanadas that took 15 minutes, and she’s changed the size of those so they cook faster.”
Linda Frenette, executive director of the Fuquay-Varina Chamber of Commerce, said Morales’ story is typical in the world of entrepreneurship. And as Fuquay-Varina seeks to attract more entrepreneurs, it’s likely the community-based support and education Morales received will become more necessary than ever for the downtown’s success.
“Most small business owners start with their passion and whatever their talent might be, and the business skills come later,” Frenette said. “Edna was there fulfilling her dream and her passion, and now she’s learning to fine-tune the business acumen that it takes to be successful.”
Morales gave an example of such a learning experience, recalling how she asked a fellow restaurateur about the Coca-Cola umbrellas and plastic cups she saw in so many other establishments.
“I always thought, ‘Why don’t I get them?’ ” Morales said. “With my personality, I’m not always asking, but I was told, ‘Why don’t you ask Coke for umbrellas?’ And they brought umbrellas. And then the cups, why don’t I get those? We asked Coke, and they said, ‘Yeah, we’ll get you cups.’ ”
Riley and Frenette said the cooperative attitudes at play in Edna’s overhaul are what make Fuquay-Varina’s downtown special. That’s both a selling point for tenants they hope to attract downtown and a bulwark against the forces of sprawl that might render a less closely knit downtown irrelevant.
The town’s recent decision to fund a downtown development staff position and long-term plans for the downtown’s redevelopment suggest town leadership views the downtown as critical to Fuquay-Varina’s identity in the future.
“We’ve had so many people relocate to Fuquay-Varina, and many of them are coming because their children have jobs here,” Riley said. “The thing I hear all the time is that we love your downtown because it made us feel like we’re at home.”
Gargan: 919-460-2604; @hgargan