Maria Schultheis was working in the kitchen at Greeny’s, a store that would become her own Maria’s Kitchen, when she saw a heart appear on a piece of foil covering a steaming pot of quinoa and vegetable soup. The unmistakable shape formed like a black and white photo developing in a darkroom. So she framed it.
“For me it’s very, very special,” Maria said. “Another time I was making juices and all the pulp from the carrots formed a heart in the juicer.”
Maria looked around lovingly at the Mexican café and store she has run for three years at 55 North Ferry Road; the bright yellow walls, cozy lunch counter, and chalkboard menu neatly listing her signature enchiladas, empanadas, salads and smoothies. “There are a lot of hearts in here,” she said.
Maria grew up in Puebla, a Mexican city about 65 miles southeast of Mexico City, with a mild climate and an active volcano called “Popo” (full name, Popocatepetl). One of 10, Maria was next-to-youngest in a family of five sisters and five brothers. Her father died when she was seven.
By the time Maria moved to New York, most of her family had already left Mexico in search of better opportunities.
The one holdout was Maria’s mother, Margarita. “My mom, she came a few times but she doesn’t like it here,” Maria said. “It’s too cold for her. In Mexico she has her own house, she has plants. She can’t do that here.”
Maria was 18, with a high school education in Puebla, when her older sister, who was living in Brooklyn, “brought me here so I could go to school, learn English and have a better life.”
The learning-English and better-life part of her sister’s plan was a success. The going-to-school part, well … “I found work making sweaters in a factory,” Maria said. “My first job. That’s why I did not want to go to school, because I was making money. I was really enjoying the work.”
But Maria was not enjoying life in the big city. After a few months, she befriended a woman who worked with her at the garment factory. Maria’s friend, who had brought her daughters up from Honduras, also wanted to get out of the city. They all moved to Southampton, where Maria lived for three years, working in a dry cleaner’s.
While working in Southampton, Maria met a Shelter Island man, married him and moved to the Island.
At first she felt isolated, but things changed when her children, Daniel and Margaret, came along. “When I first moved, I was young, I did not have children. There was nothing to do here,” she said. “But now I like it. It grew on me.”
Maria is now a single mom, raising Daniel, who will be 12 years old in June, and Margaret, who is named for Maria’s mother, and who turns 10 this month. Both attend the Shelter Island School.
Like many Islanders, Maria juggled more than one paying job. She worked as a house cleaner, helped out as a server and cook at parties, worked at West Neck Market and at Greeny’s.
While cooking at West Neck Market, Maria started to feel a stronger connection to the community, facilitated by food. “I was meeting a lot of people and people really liked my food,” she remembered. “I said, you know what, ‘I love this.’” She began to bring in her Mexican specialties and offer samples to customers.
In 2012, Greeny’s closed and Maria pounced on the opportunity to open her own place in the same space.
For the first few years it was very hard work. “For three years, I worked straight seven days a week,” she said. “But now I can relax. Now I even take off on Sundays.”
As Maria’s food has gotten better known, it has garnered praise beyond the Island, including favorable notices on TripAdvisor, Yelp and Gastro-Chic, a food and fashion blog.
It’s paying off. Last summer, Maria said she made and sold 200 pounds of guacamole a week.
The core of her food is Mexican, but her clientele is diverse. “A lot of people think all Mexican food is spicy, but it’s really not,” Maria said. “We put spicy sauces on the side.” She estimates that about a third of her customers are Spanish-speaking and most of those are from Central America, not Mexico.
Maria also serves smoothies and salads and even makes some Honduran dishes. “Tripe soup is something we make for the Spanish people,” she said. “They are always asking for something different.”
Maria employs an unusual method for creating loyal customers by figuring out, one by one, what they might like to eat, and offering it to them. She said, “You know people, you see how they are going to like it or not. They try it, they come back, and say ‘You know that thing you made me? I want that again.’ Not a lot of places can do that.”
Maria said her siblings in Brooklyn and Queens are proud of what their little sister has accomplished in the 16 years since she left Mexico, a 100 miles away from them and completely on her own. “They never thought that of me, that I would have something so nice,” Maria said. “All my sisters are very hardworking,” she said. “I did not learn it, I already had it inside.”
Hoping to pass her culinary gifts on to her children, Maria recounted being delighted when her son Daniel said one day, “‘You know what, mom, I want to cook for you and my sister.’ He made us an American hero. That was so nice, I had to take a picture.”
If the family hadn’t eaten Daniel’s sandwich, it would probably be on display in the store, right next to the soup-pot heart.