APEX, N.C. (WNCN) — Opening a new business, especially in the post-pandemic era, is a huge risk. The increased cost to lease space and buy equipment has made it even more challenging.

In Apex, a mixed-use development is under construction with plans to partially open early next year. Sweetwater Town Center aims to provide space not only for well known brands but for small businesses as well.

Restaurant becomes reality

Among those small businesses is Fratelli’s Delicatessen. RJ Cancel and his brother will be the chefs. They’re working on refining the menu for their family’s new restaurant.

“We got a chicken cutlet in there, that’s for our chicken parm sandwich… [This is] a Chicago staple. It’s called the Italian Beef,” he said as he showcased some of the restaurant’s future offerings.“ 

Fratelli’s Delicatessen was born out of his grandma Nan’s love for cooking. The lasagna pan she used from 1945 until her death, a symbol of the importance of family, will be displayed in the restaurant. 

“That was the start of many, many many lasagnas in our family. We’re so blessed she was able to leave this and give this to us when she passed away,” said Shannon Thomas, Chef Cancel’s aunt and co-owner of the future Fratelli’s Deli.

“We spent Sunday dinners at my grandma’s house growing up in Long Island, New York, and we want to have a place like that here in Apex for families to come and feel like they’re part of our family as well,” Thomas said.

Opening up their own family restaurant proved to have its difficulties. Thomas said they were forced to scrap their initial plan of opening in downtown Apex last year.  

“Unfortunately due to just expenses and COVID, it made it really hard for us to financially be able to start a brick-and-mortar building,” said Thomas. 

It’s not just hard for startups. The National Restaurant Association said 65% of existing businesses say rent costs are up and 88% say food costs are up.

“We just really decided that it may not be the best time to start because we didn’t want to fail,” said Thomas. 

When they found Sweetwater Town Center, Thomas’ dream felt like a reality again.

Vision for Sweetwater Town Center

Marvin Waldo is president of Retail Strategies NC. His 45-acre mixed-use development is still under construction but Waldo says Sweetwater Town Center’s commercial spaces are about 90% pre-leased.

The plan is to have large sidewalks for outdoor dining, a nearly football-sized lawn for events, covered areas for farmers markets, apartments and offices. His idea is to have an old town square feel in a new suburban setting.

“We really want this to be an extension of Apex and not a competitor of anything in Apex. We want it to be a place where families can do a lot of different things,” Waldo said. 

One of Waldo’s focuses was to create a space with the businesses in mind. While Sweetwater will have well-established businesses, Waldo wanted to make sure their rents were affordable for small businesses like Fratelli’s Deli.

“Pleasing the town of Apex is the goal. That’s the goal. And secondly, it’s just seeing, I want to come out here and see people having fun,” said Waldo.

“From a renting perspective,” Thomas said, “I think they’re really trying to make it a little bit easier for small businesses to become part of their storefronts, which has helped us a lot.”

Creating a family feel

Thomas said overcoming this challenge is helping her family’s dream become a reality.

“One of our goals is to definitely have our guests bite into a sandwich on our menu that reminded them of home and be like ‘Wow, this is exactly what I was looking for’,” said Cancel. 

Thomas’ dream is to keep Nan’s legacy alive.

“My dream is to just have our place flowing with people, putting a smile on their faces and filling their stomachs with joy.”