A warm community ‘hug’ for Italian concept
When oceanographer Christina Carollo decided to take the plunge into the hospitality business, even her business school education did not prepare her for the choppy waters that lay ahead.
The year 2020 was, to put it mildly, not kind.
Government-imposed lockdowns shuttered her Italian concept Ambrogia Caffé & Enoteca, and most tragically, her chef was killed in an automobile accident.
“After my chef passed away, there was a point where I considered giving the keys back to my landlord,” Carollo says. “But I got through it by doing some of the cooking, and I have a friend who’s a chef, who came in to help me, and I was able to keep going until we were able to find a new chef.”
Though great challenges such as inflation still loom, Carollo continues to find her way forward through the support of her community of Cape Charles, VA, patrons who’ve “been like a big hug” to her.
In this week’s Q&A with Boxerbrand blog Recipe for Success, Christina Carollo talks about her process and plan for Ambrogia Caffé & Enoteca.
Boxerbrand: How did you make the leap from oceanography to restaurants?
Christina: When I decided to leave science in 2018 after working in nature conservancy as an oceanographer, it was after I was stuck behind a desk. Before I changed careers, I put myself through business class and learned to write a business plan. And while I was thinking about what I could build, I thought about a traditional Italian bar in Italy, where you have coffee, or lunch or dinner, and it becomes a central gathering spot for the community. I wanted to bring something like this to my town in Virginia, which only has a population of about 900.
Boxerbrand: How did you execute on your idea?
Christina: In 2019, after I’d written the plan, I found a business partner and we found the perfect little place and we opened it. I left my career in October 2018 and we opened the doors in February 2019.
It’s a very small space with about six tables and a capacity of 28. I love it. It’s very intimate, and it’s perfect for what I wanted to do. The property at one time had housed a restaurant, so I was able to purchase equipment and tables, and to build out the rest of it with our own touches.
Boxerbrand: What do you experience crossing the threshold of Ambrogia Caffé & Enoteca?
Christina: It’s like stepping into a bar in Milan. I wanted to bring people something completely different, a place where they can share wine and a charcuterie board, and to enjoy our fresh-made pasta and some of the recipes I worked on with my mother in Italy.
We’re not a restaurant that turns the tables on you either. If you book the table, you have it for the night.
And our community, mostly made up of retirees who have had the time to travel to Italy, love it for the memories it brings back, and for the authentic pizza and tiramisu.
Boxerbrand: How did you attract your first customers?
Christina: I’m amazed, but, it was entirely word-of-mouth. In a small town, a new business is something everyone wants to try. But we were surprised by the support we had at our very first dinner for friends and family. There was a little bit of magic when we opened the doors.
Boxerbrand: How have you faced the challenges of the past couple years, and are you optimistic?
Christina: When the lockdown occurred, I had been visiting Italy before the first cases started to emerge. I came home and we were shut down for the months of January and February in 2020. In April, restaurants were approved for to-go only. But that had nothing to do with my concept, and we were not able to take advantage of it. In May, we were given permission to open up on the sidewalks, so I threw all my tables outside, and that’s what saved me. But 2020 really wasn’t kind to me. Just as we were coming back, my head chef passed away in a car accident. This was the lowest point. As I mentioned, that was the time I wondered if I should hand my keys back to the landlord. But, after our new chef came on board, and after we made it through covid, business turned around. 2021 is turning out to be my best year, mostly due to the regulars who keep coming back.
Am I optimistic? There are still so many challenges ahead, especially with inflation. But I think my way forward, and what gives me optimism, is the support of my local community. I hope to begin offering cooking classes, and special wine parings once the summer tourists are gone. And the thought of these things makes me optimistic.
Ambrogia Caffé & Enoteca, which was inspired and named for Christina Carollo’s mother, uses Boxerbrand menu covers in its table presentation. Thank you!