When Rafael and Martha Alejeo emigrated to the U.S. from Puebla, Mexico, they had no idea that one day they’d one day be running their own restaurant, Abeja’s House Café in South Asheville. But that’s how it’s turned out. Life’s funny that way.
“I had a friend who was living in Asheville, and he encouraged us to move here,” Rafael says. “It’s the best move we ever made. It’s so peaceful, and we love it here.” Having opened the Latin-themed Hendersonville Road breakfast and lunch spot in September 2015, the couple reflect on their past while keeping a watchful eye on the future.
Mountain Xpress: What were your first jobs in Asheville like?
Rafael Alejeo: I came here in 1998 and worked as a dishwasher at Tripps Restaurant. Martha moved here in 2001 and joined me there. She worked as a dishwasher too. I was really learning the business and found that I was passionate about restaurant work. I had several promotions that included fry cook, grill cook and kitchen manager. I was picking up a lot of great tips and techniques along the way. I was there until they closed in 2011. After that, I worked at a few Asheville favorites such as Sunny Point Café and Green Sage before opening Abeja’s. In addition, I also worked a factory job — I was putting in about 80-90 hours per week.
Martha Alejeo: Rafael and I have worked at many of the same places. I developed a passion for baking because my mother always made desserts. I look through recipes and make them my own. At Sunny Point, I was responsible for all the baking. I made the biscuits and learned a lot about perfecting vegan and gluten-free baking.
Tell me about the name “abeja” — is that a family name?
Rafael: Abeja is Spanish for honeybee. It also happens to be the name of our family pet, a 140-pound pig with a strong personality. We have strong beliefs in humane treatment of animals.
Do you have kids?
Rafael: Yes. We have two sons, 19 and 24. They both help us out in the café. Our niece Janet runs the front of the house. It’s a family business.
What inspired you to open the café?
Martha: I’ve always liked to make cakes for friends’ birthdays and holidays. People kept asking us when we were going to open a place.
Rafael: Over the years, I’ve really developed a passion for cooking. We were also learning more and more about how poor food quality can contribute to illness. Food can actually make people sick. We wanted a place where people would get healthy. Our ingredients are hormone-free and organic.
How did you get started?
Rafael: Mountain BizWorks helped us with a loan.
How would you describe your food?
Rafael: Latin fusion. Healthy. Savory. Humane. Locally sourced.
What are some of your most popular dishes?
Rafael: The huevos rancheros and the Mexican chilaquiles — both are gluten-free.
Martha: The tres leches cake.
What’s your favorite culinary tool?
Rafael: My sauté pan — I love to make sauces.
Martha: Rolling pin.
Do you have advice for others who may be interested in opening a restaurant?
Rafael: Love what you do. You need to be dedicated to the business.
Do you have a favorite food TV show?
Martha: Sometimes I get to watch “Cake Boss.”
Rafael: I don’t have time to watch TV.
Is there anywhere you’d like to travel to sample the cuisine?
What are your plans for the future?
Rafael: Right now we want to focus on delivering great food and service for breakfast and lunch. Maybe one day we’ll add dinner. Slow growth — we need to walk before we run.