By Laurie Paolicelli
Mojo: (Noun): An ability or quality that causes one to excel or have good luck.
Sera Cuni has mojo. Not only has she represented Chapel Hill on a national television show, she also owns and operates two successful restaurants in Orange and Chatham counties. She also figured out how to creatively pivot during COVID. Mojo plus talent equals success.
Sera is a survivor. She attributes her tenacity to good mentorship. Her mentors — including restauranteur and cookbook author Sara Foster – “taught me about life, restaurant life, and the human condition.”
Sera says restaurant people are a special breed. “We become family,” she says, “and when we get together we love to reminisce about former kitchen staff, cooks, customers, and fun memories we have. It’s like a family reunion.”
Sera has been in Chapel Hill since the early 2000s when she made the decision to move here to be near to family. After several years as a chef at the Fearrington House Inn in Pittsboro, and Nordstrom’s Café in Durham, she was hired by Sara Foster to ply her trade at Foster’s Market, the iconic Durham restaurant. In 2013, Sera and her wife Susan purchased the Chapel Hill location and rebranded it Root Cellar Café & Catering. They opened a sister spinoff of the restaurant called Café Root Cellar in Pittsboro in 2018.
Sera was making a name for herself in restaurant media, so when she got a direct message on Facebook from the Food Network she wasn’t totally surprised.
“I was on Facebook one night and I get this message from the Food Network asking me if I’d be interested in competing on their popular grocery store series, Guy’s Grocery Games. Oddly I replied ‘yes’ and the next day they called me to set-up the details.”
The show, hosted by celebrity restaurateur Guy Fieri, pits chefs from around the country in a single episode who are given a theme — and a limited time to grab ingredients from the “warehouse market place.” The chefs then create items that are evaluated by a three judge panel.
Sera didn’t win, but that’s not why she was there. She was hoping the exposure would help her businesses. Unfortunately the television appearance and promotion took place during COVID, so it didn’t help much at all.
Instead, she had to think of new ways to attract diners during the pandemic.
And she did.
“Covid was a tough time and our Chatham location needed a way to attract a new audience, so we started a whole new concept there based around a specialized menu each week focusing on a different country. One week we’d feature French cuisine, then Hungarian, Spanish, Italian. It was a big hit and we’ve continued with the concept of fresh menus each week there,” she says. “In Chapel Hill we’re committed to gourmet sandwiches, smoothies, unique breakfast items – we know what our customers like. Pittsboro is a different customer and they are loving the changing menu. COVID taught us all that pivoting was crucial, and I’m grateful we found out what works best for our customers there.”
There’s no question that a gradual recovery is underway, but the local restaurant industry is still suffering from a labor shortage and limited supply chain, so hours have had to be cut, staff has had to do double duty, and it’s the owner’s responsibility to ratchet up customer service. Sera and her wife walk the restaurant and say hello to diners, thanking them, and just chatting when they can.
“We are all trying so hard,” she says, “and we are so grateful to be open once again, and breaking bread and toasting to a healthy future. I hope diners remember to extend a little grace instead of frustration.”
Sera devotes her free time to supporting other women culinary entrepreneurs and working with nonprofits to address food insecurity in North Carolina. When she isn’t cooking, or competing on a game show or in Strong Man competitions, she’s working on ways to help otters — those charismatic and webbed-feet weasels —the animal she dreams of leaving the culinary world for if ever given the chance to work as a handler at a zoo or aquarium.
Our paths through life are unpredictable and surprising. Sera’s is no different. The charismatic girl who grew up surrounded by a family of Italian and Czech cooks has made a name for herself in Chapel Hill and Pittsboro, North Carolina. It’s like a storybook or a television show, but one in which, at the end, the cook comes out on top.
Hours of Operation
Root Cellar Café & Catering in Chapel Hill
Monday – Sunday: 8 am – 3 pm
Indoor Dining & Patio Dining
750 Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd, Chapel Hill, NC
Café Root Cellar in Pittsboro
Thursday: 5 pm – 8 pm, Friday – Saturday: 4 pm – 8 pm, Sunday: 9 am – 2 pm
Indoor Dining, Patio Dining & Takeout
35 Suttles Road, Penguin Place, Pittsboro, NC
Correction: This article was changed to correctly specify that Fearrington House Inn is located in Pittsboro, not Chapel Hill.
Laurie Paolicelli is the Executive Director of the Chapel Hill/Orange County Visitors Bureau.