When people tell us why they live in Crozet, we listen. Besides the natural beauty, friendly people and proximity to art and culture, there’s a growing group of entrepreneurs launching carefully hand-made products in small batches and relying on quality rather than scale or clever marketing for success. The launch of Nona’s Italian Cucina is the story of one woman’s dream come true and the encouragement and support she found in the western Albemarle community. This is the 18th in a series.
There were plenty of reasons why Yvonne Cunningham—a former government contractor who’d never worked in sales or food service—decided to launch her small, food-related business in Crozet. “I noticed the area was a Mecca for foodies,” she said, “with wineries, breweries, orchards and farms.” Central Virginia seemed just the place for Nona’s Cucina, the authentic tomato sauce brand she hoped to produce in small, flavorful batches.
She found resources to help her as a novice businesswoman and a systematic path forward at the Charlottesville Investment Collaborative (CIC), an nonprofit offering financing, education, mentoring, and networking for beginning entrepreneurs. But Crozet’s biggest draw was more personal and emotional than practical, she said. “We were in Charlottesville and we found Crozet and just fell in love with it.”
Cunningham and her husband, whose military career had taken the family all over the world landed in Charlottesville a few years ago. This came after two different assignments in Italy, where they also fell in love with the countryside, the food and the people.
That’s not to say there were no challenges. On their first assignment to Naples, the travelers had a baby and a toddler in tow, and the young parents spent months in a hotel waiting for their assigned home to be ready. When at last the moving truck pulled up to the curb, Cunningham noticed a woman peeking through the window to check out the Americans moving in next door.
This was her first introduction to the 78-year-old woman she came to call “Nonna,” Communication was hard at first: “I spoke no Italian, she spoke no English,” but they ended up cooking together. Cunningham was impressed by the time and attention Nonna gave to everything, be it her weekly batch of tomato gravy or her seasonal minestrone. “It was all so perfect and so full of flavor,” Cunningham said. “I wanted to cook just like her.”
Through other assignments, Cunningham continued to cook the authentic dishes she’d learned, and friends noticed. One of them asked Cunningham to cater her wedding. She gladly agreed, and the response of the guests to the Italian wedding dinner was so enthusiastic that the idea for Nona’s Cucina was born. Cunningham said she’s apologized many times for the alternative spelling of the Italian term for “grandmother,” but it was necessary for marketing.
So how to transform her understanding of traditional Italian cooking and her own skills into a thriving business? Cunningham knew it wouldn’t be easy. She learned as much about commercial food preparation and small business development as she could. One of her mentors from the Charlottesville Investment Cooperative was Kristen Rabourdin, who went on to become the owner of the Batesville Market. Cunningham learned that Virginia had other resources for small, local businesses, including a processing plant in Blacksburg. She remembers it as a kind of bare-bones operation, without air conditioning or modern luxuries of any kind.
“I said to myself that I would never work there,” she remembers, “but sure enough, there I was in Blacksburg every Monday making 20 cases of my marinara sauce.” The days were long, the work hot and grueling, and it was “basically a one-woman show,” Cunningham said. Her product took off almost right away and was distributed, first at farmers markets where it sold out quickly, and then around the state. “I was so grateful,” she remembers.
But then, Covid happened. The cannery in Blacksburg shut down and, with it, Cunningham’s ability to produce her marinara sauce under the strict guidelines regulated by law. With the help of Rabourdin, she figured out a way to move forward with reduced production. These days, you can find her on Mondays making four cases of her sauce in the commercial kitchen at the Batesville Market, an amount that sells out almost immediately—in Batesville, at her outlets in Crozet, and at select other markets throughout the state.
As she figures out a way to grow her business in a post-pandemic world, she adheres to the strict steps she established to control the quality of her product. She imports the San Marzano tomatoes traditionally used for sauce, but has interested local growers in planting the flat-leaf parsley and basil she uses. Time is an essential ingredient for Nona’s tomato sauce as well: “You just can’t hurry it up,” Cunningham said. “It takes at least ten hours to reach the right consistency.” Also taking time is the painstaking monitoring of ph levels and sterile processing required to bring a consistent and safe food item to the market.
Another thing has changed about her business, Cunningham said: there’s almost no marketing. That was not because she planned it that way, but because her product caught the attention of interested retailers. “I’m at a point where businesses come to me rather than me trying to sell my product to them,” she said. “Of the 22 stores carrying Nona’s Cucina, all came to me. That’s a good position to be in.”
Find Nona’s Cucina at the Batesville Market, Greenwood Gourmet, the Blue Ridge Bottle Shop, and other outlets across the state. You can find more outlets and also buy it online at nonascucina.com.