Insights from Victoria Salamanca, Cafe Tola (Southport, Avondale)
When Victoria Salamanca started selling cookies out of her high school locker, she had no idea that food would become her life’s work. Now she is the owner of Cafe Tola, an award-winning empanada shop with two Chicago locations.
Though Victoria grew up in Chicago, she spent every summer with her grandparents in Florida. They were fruit and vegetable pickers, so she was surrounded by their cooking and helped them sell food at flea markets. “Tola is what they used to call me when I was little, because I’m named after my grandmother, Victoria. They called her Tola for short, Doña Tola, and I would be Tolita.”
At fourteen, Victoria made the decision to attend Catholic high school, and paid her own way by selling baked goods. Her delicious treats worked like a charm, but college wasn’t as simple: “I couldn’t afford to go to Columbia for journalism, so I just got a job working for a garbage company when I was eighteen years old in the accounts receivable department.”
She would show up to work every day with extravagant lunches that she’d prepared for herself. Victoria said, “I was already [cooking] and talking about it so passionately,” and eventually her co-workers started pushing her to go to culinary school.
After school, Victoria started her own catering company. One of her clients, Ogilvy & Mather, gave her the opportunity to compete for a contract to provide barista services to their employees. Victoria gave herself a crash course studying coffee-making, and got the contract.
“I felt like super woman-power, you know. I had just won this huge contract, and they had all this faith in me.”
Soon enough Victoria was kicking her husband out of the small office space in Wrigleyville that she had found for him just a year earlier to open up Cafe Tola. She covered the walls with decorations and murals, and hung a massive light-up sign outside that couldn’t be missed.
On top of coffee and tea, Victoria started offering the best-selling item from her catering menu: empanadas. “I would fill them with all my grandmother’s cooking, they’re called guisados in Spanish. It’s like Mexican comfort food.”
She began with her most familiar ingredients, like braised pork and chicken tinga. Soon she started experimenting with flavors like chicken pot pie and buffalo chicken. Today, Cafe Tola is a staple in the Southport neighborhood.
Victoria knows her customers, and takes their requests to heart. “To see kids from the neighborhood come in, and they’re asking for green spicy pork as their favorite empanadas, and they’re like four and five year olds. It’s so nice to be able to share that experience … to share our culture with others.”
Four and a half years (and a second location) later, Cafe Tola and their #bestempanadas are a beloved part of Chicago:
“This neighborhood is very special, and I feel very lucky to have found this space here. … Since we opened they’ve been 100% supportive, it’s like one big hug and they’re still holding on to us.”
Victoria laughed at her high school self, saying, “I would be a terrible journalist!” Now, her dream is to grow Cafe Tola. She’s getting ready to open two more locations, including a sit down Mexican comfort restaurant called Doña Tola, after her grandmother, only a couple blocks away from the current Southport location.
“We really want to grow the happy family Cafe Tola brand. We really feel that we have something that is lovingly made, served by people who are happy working here.”