Post-NASCAR job turns out to be a real sweet life

Sean Cox loved the dozen years he worked in NASCAR team engine shops, but he's launched a "sweet" new career.

Cox was laid off last year amid industry-wide cutbacks that cost hundreds of motorsports jobs.

Cox and his wife, Diane, opened Sweet Tooth, a confections and gift store in the Rosedale Commons shopping center off Interstate 77 Exit 23.

The store features fudge Sean makes each day behind the counter, along with specialty chocolates, chocolate-covered strawberries, truffles, DeLuxe Ice Cream, Dilworth Coffee, small gifts and Diane's fudge-dipped "animal" apples that resemble everything from smiling green frogs to Winnie the Pooh characters.

Cox, 42, said he misses the camaraderie of the guys he worked with in the Penske Racing engine program in Concord. But the industry changed over the years, with motorsports outfits growing so large they resembled big corporations, he said.

"I felt like just a number at the end," he said. "You don't feel like you're part of a team."

Cox, a native of Biloxi, Miss., earned nearly $60,000 with bonuses. But he knew when he was laid off in January 2009 that he'd never be able to get a similar job in the sport because of massive consolidation. He'd survived layoffs dating to late 2007.

Cox took a website design class at Rowan-Cabarrus Community College and got more involved helping Diane homeschool their daughters, Madelyn, 12, and Emily, 10. The family lives in Kannapolis.

Diane, originally from Grand Rapids, Mich., has held various jobs over the years, including teaching Kindermusik and at a private school. She was a church music director for three years.

But working part-time at a Concord area sweets shop inspired her to start her own. She learned of the former Jackson's Java space in Rosedale Commons from a friend.

Diane, 40, said she lost sleep worrying about finances in the months after they opened in March. Would they keep meeting monthly expenses?

But so far so good, as Sweet Tooth continues to build business.

The shop has hosted concerts and a visual arts display to raise money for an Ardent Faith church mission trip to Uganda.

Radiant Life and New Birth churches hold weekly Bible studies at the shop, and Ardent Faith occasionally has staff meetings there. The Spanish Club of Lake Norman plans an upcoming ice cream social.

And Saturday night acoustic concerts on Sweet Tooth's patio are drawing larger crowds, including about 150 on Aug. 14, Diane Cox said.

Pharmaceutical reps and others, meanwhile, come in to buy boxes of chocolates for clients.

Steve Green goes there for his daily cup of Hard Core, billed as "a darker roast/stronger brew for our tougher coffee drinkers."

Green teaches guitar at the nearby Music & Arts in Rosedale. Green might be a regular, but said, as he patted his belly, that he has to avoid Sweet Tooth's melt-in-your mouth treats.

Seeing regulars like Green and new patrons like Rob Patton of Charlotte, who bought chocolates for his girlfriend, makes long hours at the shop worth it for Sean Cox.

"Last week, I had four days of 14 hours and two days of 10 hours," he said, far longer than the 40-hour work weeks at Penske.

But now he gets to run a business with his wife, "and it's rewarding to see people enjoy the fruits of your labor," he said.