Sweet Second Chances

Martha Gilreath’s path to the opening of her bricks and mortar bakery Nolita is paved with the sobriety she gained a mere four years ago.

Baker Martha Gilreath, a Mandeville native, was raised in a big, loving family that always had a king cake on the kitchen counter during Carnival and that regularly made trips to the French Quarter for beignets.

As she got older, however, things became much less idyllic.

When her college plans didn’t work out, Gilreath began working in restaurants where drugs were always readily available. Before long, drug abuse landed her on the streets.

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After a couple of attempts to get clean failed, even her family lost hope.

“I was in active addiction for 16 years,” she said. “My mother even stopped taking my calls, explaining, ‘I have another five kids to raise.’”

The first step toward a new life, however, began in 2020 at a treatment center, when a newly sober Gilreath baked a cheesecake for another resident’s 21st birthday.

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“I looked in through the dining room window and saw the joy on the kid’s face when he ate my cake,” she said. “I thought, ‘This is something I can do.’”

In that moment, she found her purpose in life.

After rehab, Gillreath was accepted into the Baking and Pastry Arts program of the New Orleans Culinary and Hospitality Institute (NOCHI).

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“I’ll never forget my first day there,” she said. “My parking space was under I-10, exactly where I had been living in 2018. I looked around and thought, I can choose to return to addiction, or I can choose life. I chose to live.”

Even before Gilreath graduated as valedictorian of her class at NOCHI, her entrepreneurial spirit kicked in and she decided to start baking king cakes professionally, googling “how to start a business” and “how to form an LLC.” Meanwhile, Gilreath developed a beautifully simple version of a king cake, reminiscent of the beloved McKenzie’s king cakes of her childhood.

“It was crazy,” Gilreath remembered. “NOCHI let me use their kitchen to make the cakes and we were printing labels at Office Depot,” she laughed. Naming her new business Nolita, she sold 250 king cakes that first season.

By Mardi Gras 2022, the King Cake Hub took notice, and with their help, she sold 1,200 king cakes.

The following year, Gilreath was working as executive chef at the Chicory House in the Lower Garden District, where her king cakes were also available for purchase. Her sales approached 1,700.

In December 2023, Gilreath a bakery at 3201 Orleans Avenue, where she is eagerly anticipating the 2024 Carnival season.

The warmth and joyfulness Gilreath exudes is reflected in her new bakery. The bakery’s space includes a large, fenced side yard with plenty of seating and space for kids to play.

Her family has embraced her recovery and been instrumental in creating the beautiful, sunny space.

From the color scheme to the design layout of the space, Gilreath’s elder sister Courtney’s design expertise shines. Her youngest brother, Turner, himself an expert woodworker, built the striking bench lining the interior wall.

“It was important to me that the prep table be right up front and visible,” she said. “I wanted kids to see what goes into making our treats.”

And what treats there are at Nolita! From blueberry muffins to banana bread and chocolate chip cookies, everything includes a special touch. Croissants are round instead of crescent-shaped and include rotating flavors like hazelnut chocolate and pistachio cream. Her morning rolls — crafted from the same dough as her king cakes — feature hints of citrus and a brown sugar filling. Savory pastries like boudin Danish taste like “biscuits and gravy in a laminated pastry,” Gilreath reported.

“I am so blessed to be able to do what I love,” she said. “My goal is to make a living and be happy. I truly believe that it’s my job to recover loudly, to always be of service and help others.”

Catch Poppy Tooker on her radio show, “Louisiana Eats!” Saturdays at 3 p.m. and Mondays at 8 p.m. on WWNO 89.9 FM.

Poppy Tooker has spent her life devoted to the cultural essence that food brings to Louisiana, a topic she explores weekly on her NPR-affiliated radio show, Louisiana Eats! From farmers markets to the homes and restaurants where our culinary traditions are revered and renewed, Poppy lends the voice of an insider to interested readers everywhere.


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