A granddaughter of the North Carolina cooking legend, the late Mildred Council (a.k.a. Mama Dip), and an entrepreneurial and baking phenom in her own right, Tonya Council knows how to find her way around a kitchen, run a business, and support other Southern entrepreneurs. These days, she’s finding her way around Raleigh, too. Last fall, Council launched a pop-up of her Chapel Hill shop Tonya’s Cookies in Raleigh’s Crabtree Mall. The reviews traveled far beyond Raleigh city limits; in December 2021 her Pecan Crisp Cookies were named as one of “Oprah’s Favorite Things.” Since 2017, Council has also run Sweet Tea & Cornbread, a specialty shop which sells small-batch products from all over North Carolina, and in 2019 she introduced a café of the same name in the North Carolina Museum of History.
A native of neighboring Chapel Hill, where she grew up working and learning beside her grandmother, Council has gotten to know Raleigh through its farmers markets and independently owned restaurants. “I appreciate the small businesses, like my family’s,” she says. “They’ve carried on the tradition that their family taught them as well.” And like so many of those small business and restaurant owners, Council has used the past two years to reimagine how she shares her culinary creations. Since the early days of the pandemic, when her café and shops were forced to temporarily shutter, she’s built a following through her “Porch Drops” which deliver Southern brunch favorites such as chicken and dumplings, biscuits and milk gravy, pecan pie, and fried chicken to porches and front doors.
We caught up with Council to chat Raleigh, her hometown, and her big plans for the rest of the year.
Sweet Tea, Cornbread, and Cookies
The Raleigh pop-up of Tonya’s Cookies (the original shop is in Chapel Hill, right across the street from Mama Dip’s Kitchen) will stay open through March, Council says. At Sweet Tea & Cornbread in Raleigh, Council has been continually on the hunt to add more North Carolina specialty products to the shop’s roster. Council always gets to know her vendors and their processes. “I have a lot of favorites,” she says. “One of them is Bruce Julian’s Bloody Mary Mix. And it’s funny because I don’t like tomato juice. But I tasted it and I was like, Oh, it’s good! That’s out of Charlotte. I also like Big Country Gourmet Souse. They’re out of Raleigh. Also Simons Says Spread This; it’s run by a husband-and-wife team. They make these delicious nut butters. I mean, it’s like no other—they actually make them sweet.”
The North Carolina Museum of History
Council’s Sweet Tea & Cornbread café in Raleigh’s North Carolina Museum of History was the first restaurant she opened on her own. “I’d always been with my family,” she says, “so I was a bit nervous. But it’s been amazing to see how the museum works behind the scenes. It’s pretty cool how so many people come into play to bring so much knowledge about what’s happened in the history of North Carolina.” The café temporarily closed during the pandemic, but Council plans to reopen it this spring.
On weekends, Council stops by the Moore Square Market right down the street from the North Carolina Museum of History. “Whenever I get a chance, I’ll stop and patronize and introduce myself to some of the vendors and try to bring in some of their products into Sweet Tea & Cornbread.” She also visits Raleigh’s Black Farmers’ Market, which pops up around the city on the second and fourth Sundays of each month.
On the Town
“I generally try to stick to small, local spots when I’m out and about,” Council says. NOFO, part café, part shop, is one of those spots. “I’ve known Miss Jean [NOFO owner Jean Martin] for a long time. She has really good shrimp and grits. Her whole setup is really cool.” When it’s time to hang up her apron, Council meets friends at Angus Barn. “My friends and I just sit around the fireplace and have cocktails and hang out. Angus Barn has been around for almost a hundred years. It’s the coolest place—kind of like a lodge.”
When she’s back in Chapel Hill, it’s straight to her family’s spot, Mama Dip’s Kitchen, of course. “The fried chicken is out of this world!” She also stops in for the walnut French toast at Kipos, a Greek taverna that puts a decidedly Southern twist on its brunch menu.
“I’ve always been told not to say what you’re doing next,” Council says. “But I’m trying to get a Sweet Tea & Cornbread in Chapel Hill. A lot of times my mom and family are like, Okay, so you have like nine things on your plate. When are you going to think that that’s enough? But you only live once.”