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Starting Over‘Tough chicks’ take business displacement in stride

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Nona’s Sweets gets derailed, starts over at a new site in Charlotte

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When Jo-Ann Morlando and Dominica Clementi decided to expand Nona’s Sweets Bakery Café in 2008, they knew it wouldn’t be easy.

In the middle of a recession, growing a small business seemed impossible. They couldn’t find a loan. Lender after lender turned them down.

So Morlando and her husband, Nick, did what they thought they had to do: They poured nearly $400,000 of their savings into the family business.

They made big plans: They signed a 10-year lease at a prominent location on J.W. Clay Boulevard in University City and filled their time working 14-hour days, experimenting with new flavors and ways to improve family recipes.

Within months, business was booming. When their small business survived one of the worst recessions the country had seen, they thought they had made it.

But in 2011, everything changed.

The city altered plans for the Lynx Blue Line Extension. A plan that would have brought heavy foot traffic past the bakery shifted. The new plan: Demolish the Nona’s site to make room for a parking deck.

It was a change that forced Morlando and Clementi out of the location they once fell in love with – six years before the end of their lease.

It’s a change that, for the first time in her life, has left Morlando in debt.

“I was taught that if you worked hard, you would always get what you deserved,” Morlando said. “We worked hard, and they just came in the door and took it from me.”

Taking a chance

Growing up, neither Morlando, 71, nor her daughter, Clementi, 50, ever expected to open a family business.

Both women learned to bake as children. They spent weekends and summers on tiptoe, stretching to reach the stove, and scribbled down any piece of fifth-generation family recipes they could gather. But when it came time for a career, they each chose a professional path: Morlando as a bookkeeper, and Clementi as a businesswoman turned stay-at-home-mom, only baking for school and church bake sales.

Their recreational baking quickly swelled to dozens of requests from friends. They worked long days at their 9-to-5 jobs and in the home, and baked throughout nights – sometimes until sunrise. Morlando baked, while Clementi and her sister-in-law, Anne Morlando, designed cakes and other sweets.

“Eventually, I knew we couldn’t work two jobs,” Morlando said. “So, one night, I just said, ‘Let’s start a bakery and see what happens.’ ”

It was then, in 2004, that the trio took a chance on Nona’s Sweets Bakery Café. For four years, the three gained their footing at a small site named for their nonas, or Italian grandmothers. When the bakery exploded with success, Morlando decided to expand into a new location, risking the family savings on renovating the J.W. Clay location.

“It was a really great spot,” Clementi said. She said she chose the locale with Morlando because of the city’s plans for a light-rail stop in front of the bakery and UNC Charlotte’s plans to build a football stadium across the street.

“Our lease had a stipulation about eminent domain,” Morlando said, referring to the government’s power to take private property for public use. “We brought that to our attorney’s attention, and he said, ‘Oh God, that never happens. The most they’ll take is a sidewalk.’ ”

“We believed him,” she said.

A deadline to vacate

The Lynx Blue Line Extension, the planned $1.16 billion addition to Charlotte’s light-rail service, was originally designed to end at Interstate 485.

But that changed in 2011, when the Metropolitan Transit Commission approved shortening the extension for financial reasons, said Judy Dellert-O’Keef, a spokeswoman for the Charlotte Area Transit System.

The change, predicted to save $92 million, shortened the length by 1.2 miles, ending the new line at UNC Charlotte and adding a parking deck – at the exact location of Nona’s.

“We were all really shocked and outraged that the light rail was coming through and swallowing us up and other businesses,” Clementi said. “We fought it; we contacted attorneys.”

“But when eminent domain comes into play, there is nothing you can do,” she said.

The parking deck, slated to stand four or five levels high and house between 600 and 800 spaces, Dellert-O’Keef said, replaces the bakery and three other food businesses. Demolition is complete, she said.

When making changes to the extension, the city tried to minimize impact to businesses and residences, Dellert-O’Keef said. Ultimately, 17 businesses will be affected by the line.

As word of the city’s plans spread, business was cut in half, Clementi said.

Their deadline to vacate approached, and Morlando and Clementi struggled to find a new home for Nona’s. Exclusivity rights complicated the search, preventing Nona’s from relocating to shopping centers with other bakeries. And they wanted to stay in University City.

Their customers helped them build the business, Morlando said. “We had to stay true to those people.”

Eventually, Morlando and Clementi signed a new lease on Overland Park Lane, in The Shoppes at Worthington off W.T. Harris Boulevard.

New money was spent on renovations, advertising and staff training. But every dime poured into their former location was lost.

The city “only reimbursed us for the move – physically having someone pack up the shop and reinstall the equipment,” Clementi said. “Nothing for loss of income, loss of employees’ time.”

“I had a staff of 16 people to worry about,” Clementi said. “How would I take care of them? They had to go six weeks without income. That’s the kind of stuff that keeps me up at night.”

Dellert-O’Keef said that when a business is required to move, tenants are eligible for relocation funds. Relocation funds include payments for expenses such as packing, utility reinstallation and modifications to the new property, among other settlements.

Jean Leier, a spokeswoman for CATS, said the city has reimbursed Nona’s about $188,000 so far. She said the city also tried to work with Nona’s, waiving the bakery’s rent for nearly five months and allowing Morlando and Clementi to stay at the bakery’s location for an additional two months beyond the standard time an entity has to vacate.

‘Tough chicks’

At first, Morlando said she couldn’t imagine starting over.

“I asked (Clementi), ‘Why are we going to do this again?” But after closing their former spot Feb. 16 and reopening in their new place March 6, Morlando said she and Clementi are finding reasons to be excited about their new location – and new menu.

“It feels good to be back doing what we love to do every day…,” Clementi said. “Now, we’re just hunkering down to make it happen again.”

Their new space is more open, more spiritual and relaxing, Morlando said. Shelves of intricate cakes – in the shapes of teakettles and wooden ships, among others – are on display. Old photographs, of their nonas from generations ago, are on the walls. Comfy chairs and tables greet customers.

Their Italian classics remain: cannolis, sfogliatelles and napoleans. The custom-cake business is the same as ever. Clementi said Nona’s is focused on bolstering its café portion, called Papa’s Eats.

The nearly 10-year journey of Nona’s has led Clementi and Morlando through a series of ups and downs. Morlando is a five-time cancer survivor. Clementi has been cancer-free for five years.

“We’re tough chicks,” Clementi said. “We push through.”

McCabe: 704-358-5197; Twitter: mccabe_caitlin
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