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Small Business Spotlight: Juana’s Venezuelan Cuisine

In 2017, Ady Martinez and her family introduced their special arepas to the State College community.

They set up a small stand at the farmer’s market on Locust Lane and eventually developed a loyal following of customers. Martinez says people loved this food staple from her home country of Venezuela so much that they constantly asked whether or not she had a restaurant downtown.

Although the initial answer to that question was no, Martinez and her husband Hugo Romero gained inspiration from these customers and opened up their own family restaurant about a year later.

Tucked away in a tiny alleyway at 129 S. Fraser Street, Juana’s serves authentic Venezuelan cuisine made from locally sourced, fresh ingredients. The arepas themselves are made from scratch by Martinez, who uses a “secret” family recipe from her grandmother, Juana. Back home in Venezuela, Martinez says her family ate arepas all day — for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

But this recipe isn’t the only way Juana influenced her granddaughter’s restaurant in Central Pennsylvania. In fact, Martinez says she owes all of her love and appreciation for cooking to the years she spent in the kitchen by her grandmother’s side.

At just 3 and 4 years old, Martinez was trained to cook by her grandmother with simple “smelling tests.” She closed her eyes while Juana held out different spices and ingredients close to her nose. After plenty of trial and error, Martinez learned to identify these ingredients within seconds.

More than anything, Martinez says she loved cooking with her grandmother and ultimately this translated to a deep love and admiration for food. Now, she keeps these sacred things she learned from Juana in mind each day she goes to work.

“I cook everything with Juana’s taste,” Martinez said.

She also carries on Juana’s tradition of having fun while cooking, treating it as a form of art instead of a chore.

“It’s about enjoying the kitchen,” Martinez said. “It’s about feeling good…I enjoy everything with my business. I am now 50 years old, and whatever activity I do now is about enjoying life.”

It’s easy to see this joy in action at Juana’s downtown, as Martinez likes to sing, dance, and listen to music while preparing arepas. It’s also flagrant in her interactions with customers, some of whom are students who refer to her as “mom” and think of Juana’s as their home away from home.

Martinez says she sometimes receives calls from parents thanking her for looking after their kids.

“It’s necessary [to work] with the best attitude,” Martinez said. “You need to open your mind and give.”

Martinez’s love for people stems from the many diverse experiences she had earlier in her career. She previously spent 26 years as a math teacher at an elementary school in Venezuela. She also operated three different daycares in her home country, overseeing more than 200 children and 29 employees.

When Martinez came to State College, she got her start in the food industry working at Cracker Barrel and later transitioning into a managerial role at the Bagel Crust on Westerly Parkway. She says both of these jobs provided great opportunities to learn about American restaurants and prepare her for her current situation.

Ultimately, opening her own restaurant, particularly one that honored the legacy of the woman who instilled her love for cooking, was always her dream. The decision to turn that dream into a reality was equally as natural and inherent considering Martinez’s roots as a business owner and the fact that, as her daughter puts it, she’s “always wanted to be her own boss.”

Now, three years after first opening Juana’s doors, Martinez is grateful for the support she’s received from the people in State College who were delighted to add gourmet Venezuelan arepas to the downtown food scene. She hopes that Juana’s can continue to be a gathering place where people in the community can connect with each other for years to come.

And although she’s thousands of miles away from home, operating this business has brought Martinez closer than ever before to her roots, her family, and her home country, Venezuela.

Editor’s note: Despite being closed for the past few months while Martinez was in Venezuela, the restaurant is now back up and running. Juana’s is open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday.

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About the Author

Rory Pelella

Rory is a senior from Binghamton, New York majoring in Spanish and journalism. She's been bleeding blue and white ever since her older siblings decided to create a family dynasty in Happy Valley in 2006. So, as you can imagine, she loves absolutely everything Penn State (especially the Cheese Shoppe downtown). She's also a die-hard Yankees, Knicks, and Giants fan (it's brutal), and would do anything for a good old fashioned New York slice. Feel free to email her at [email protected] or follow her on twitter @rorypelella.

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