(Updated at 9:05 a.m. on 9/23/2021) Nicole Liberatore has come a long way from handing cannoli to customers in a parking lot.
Less than two years after they started selling traditional Italian baked goods out of their Annandale home, Liberatore and her husband Dominick have turned their Bisnonna Bakeshop into a brick-and-mortar store at Tysons Corner Center, which welcomed its new arrival on Saturday (Sept. 18) with much fanfare.
“This has definitely been a real Cinderella story for us,” Liberatore told Tysons Reporter while piping creamy ricotta cheese filling into tubes of fried pastry dough.
The fairy godmother came in the form of Tysons Corner Center’s first-ever DreamStart competition, a “Shark Tank”-style contest where entrepreneurs pitched a product, service, or business concept for the opportunity to get three months of free rent at the mall, among other prizes.
Tysons Corner Center launched the competition in May with the dual goal of supporting local businesses and attracting new tenants to fill its vacant spaces, including the corner spot across from Barnes & Noble that Bisnonna has taken over from the Gordon Biersch Brewery Restaurant.
While the 53-year-old shopping center has been insulated from some of COVID-19’s effects, the past year has still required a whirlwind of adjustments, as the pandemic accelerated some trends, like the shift to online shopping, that were already challenging traditional retailers and the malls that relied on them.
“Everybody’s been affected in different ways, so it’s all about being nimble and making sure we’re able to adapt not just to the pandemic, but all the things that change in the retail industry,” Tysons Corner Center Senior Manager of Business Development Services Becca Willcox said.
After the competition’s 21 applicants were whittled down to nine finalists, Bisnonna was named the grand prize winner on Aug. 11. The runners-up were fashion boutique Garçon Melanie, which opened on Aug. 28, and The Popcorn Bag DC, which is still in the works.
Willcox says the winners stood out as much for the narratives that their owners told as the products they sell. The property team from Macerich, which owns Tysons Corner Center, was especially drawn to Liberatore’s story of starting Bisnonna with recipes passed down from her and her husband’s grandparents.
“The family roots that they have…the way they take a traditional Italian pastry and infuse the cultures that are prominent here in the Northern Virginia area really stood out to us,” Willcox said. “It made us see that there was a big hole in what we offered here in Tysons and an opportunity to be able to really connect with the community through delicious food and product.”
Though she grew up in Maryland, Liberatore’s family comes from New Jersey. She met Dominick, a Jersey Shore native, while attending George Mason University and began learning to bake biscotti, pizzelle, and other traditional Italian desserts from his grandmother, a first-generation Italian American.
Since they had no formal chef training, Liberatore says it took years for the couple to get to the point where they could turn their hobby into a full-fledged business. But once Bisnonna started in the fall of 2018, it amassed a loyal following, as evidenced by the steady line of customers who cleaned out the bakery within four hours of its 10 a.m. opening on Saturday.
In fact, Tysons Corner Center says the initial turnout was so strong that the bakery has temporarily adjusted its operating hours to Thursdays through Sundays to give the team more time to make enough food to meet the demand. They are also upgrading the kitchen, so Bisnonna won’t be open again until Sept. 30, according to its website.
The shop will be open during mall hours from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Thursday through Saturday and from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Sunday.
Bisnonna’s pastries are all hand-crafted, including its signature cannoli, so going from a home-based business that required pre-orders to a physical storefront brought both complications and rewards.
“We wanted to give people that quintessential Italian pastry shop experience, where they can come in, see a big, beautiful display case full of stuff,” Liberatore said. “…We weren’t able to do that before in the house, because we were making everything to order for each specific customer. So, now being able to provide people with more options is really exciting, but definitely a steep learning curve for us.”
Liberatore says it has been “super helpful” to work with Tysons Corner Center, which organized the grand opening event and provided marketing support in addition to the three months of free rent.
Greeted by a panel adorned with Liberatore’s family photos and a poster bearing a fitting quote from “The Godfather,” patrons could sit down at cafe-style tables to eat or get their first bite of a cannoli captured for social media via a “Crunch Cam.”
While she’d hoped the pandemic would have subsided by the time the shop opened, Liberatore credited Bisnonna’s customers for keeping the business afloat over the past year, and she was excited to interact with them more after being previously limited to those parking lot hand-offs.
“We are really excited about that, kind of the face-to-face that we’ve been missing,” she said. “Our customers have been so supportive of the journey…and we’re just really thrilled to be able to see them in person.”
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