Putting Down Roots in Chatham Park

Q&A with The Root Cellar’s Sera Cuni and Susan White 

By Laura Zolman Kirk |  Photography by Briana Brough

The Root Cellar’s Sera Cuni and Susan White have strong ties to the county. Sera has lived here since 2003 when she purchased a home in historic downtown Pittsboro. Susan was born in the old Chatham Hospital and graduated from Jordan-Matthews High School before leaving for college in 1986. In 2009, the now-married couple moved into a home in the Powell Place community together. They own The Root Cellar in Chapel Hill and are opening a second branch of their beloved farm-to-table restaurant in Chatham Park. We chatted with the couple about their ties to the county, what it means to plant business roots here and how they envision Chatham’s future.

What drew you to Chatham County?

Susan In many ways, family drew both of us to Chatham County.

Sera I initially moved to North Carolina in 2001, after spending most of my culinary career in Connecticut. I was born in Trumbull, and grew up loving Connecticut’s cold winters, but after a particular snowy season in 2000, I just grew tired of it all and finally decided to move closer to my parents, who were living in Apex at the time. My brother, Seth, also eventually moved to the area, bringing all of my immediate family to the Triangle. Shortly after moving to the state, I was hired at Fearrington Village, first at the former market, now known as The Granary, and later at The Fearrington House Restaurant as a sous-chef. I knew pretty early that I wanted to open my own restaurant one day and after buying a house and moving to Pittsboro, that desire only intensified.

Susan In addition to attending Chatham County’s public schools, my ties to the community extend to the business sector. My late father Henry L. White, Jr. worked for years as a salesman at Jones Department Store in downtown Siler City, while my mother Shirley, retired in 2000 as an assistant register of deeds with the county. After leaving Siler City and graduating from Campbell University with a degree in mass communication, I spent most of my career as a journalist, working for newspapers in Harnett County, Greenville, Winston-Salem and in Norfolk-Virginia Beach. In 2008, I was hired as a marketing writer and academic editor at the School of Social Work at UNC Chapel Hill, where I still work today. I pursued the position because I was eager for new challenges outside of journalism and because I wanted to be closer to my mother, who still lives in the same house where I grew up.

What prompted the decision to open a second location of The Root Cellar in Chatham Park?

Sera In January 2013, shortly after Susan and I purchased Foster’s Market Chapel Hill [former name of The Root Cellar], we started talking about the idea of bringing a second location to Pittsboro. After we married in late 2014, we really started to ramp up those plans.

Ultimately, we loved the idea of living and working in our own community and being able to contribute to our economy, financially and socially. We are committed to supporting local farmers as much as we possibly can, and a lot of the food we serve is grown right here in our state and in the Triangle. We also work hard to give back to our community by offering higher-paying wages and benefits and by financially supporting causes that we believe in.

Susan I think it’s also important to note that over the years, our business has evolved into more than just a restaurant. It’s a place to build community – a comfortable gathering spot where friends and family can catch up over a great meal as well as celebrate birthdays, retirements, new motherhood, marriages and other life events.

How close are y’all to opening?

We’re aiming for an early-November opening – so soon!

What are your thoughts on Chatham Park? It’s a big change for the county. Is it a welcome one for you?

Sera It is a big change, and we know folks have various opinions about it, and we respect that. For us, Chatham Park offers a chance to grow our business and gives us the opportunity to contribute even more to a community that we love.

Susan Having grown up in Siler City, I watched over the years as so many businesses shuttered. The economic effects are still felt today. Although the town is slowly starting to rebuild, for many, there still aren’t enough opportunities to attract new residents or enough reasons to keep younger people living there. Pittsboro hasn’t faced the same struggles, but I think the town and Chatham County are at a crossroads, especially with so many communities growing around us. I want more independently owned businesses like ours to have greater opportunities to thrive here in our own backyard.

What are you most excited about in bringing The Root Cellar to Chatham?

Susan I’m excited about deepening our roots, so to speak. But I’m also lucky to be married to someone who has such a passion for food, who really cares about where that food comes from, and who loves to share that passion with others. I think Chatham is in for a real treat and just hope as we work to support the community that the community will also support us.

Sera I’m excited that we’re finally making this dream of ours a reality. For so long, it didn’t seem like it was going to happen. We love Pittsboro, we’ve built our home here, and we think The Root Cellar will be a great fit for our community.

 CM

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