For the Love of Food: Nicole DeFranza and Kristen Sickler
Walk into Carmella’s, an Italian bistro, in Appleton and the photos on the left that showcase the DeFranza family are sure to catch your eye. Sisters Nicole DeFranza, 43, and Kristen Sickler, 41, were surrounded by food and family growing up.
Their passion, and the support of their parents, inspired the women to open not one but two restaurants. They explain they’re honored to share a part of themselves with every guest that walks through the door.
A family business
DeFranza and Sickler grew up in New York. Their parents settled there to run the family restaurant that had opened in the early 1920s. Their grandmother, Carmella, taught their father, Larry, how to prepare the family’s Italian recipes.
The girls were essentially born into the business. They lived above the family restaurant and spent their summer afternoons peeling garlic with their grandmother. As they got older, the sisters bused tables. They continued to grow and help with the demands of the restaurant.
When DeFranza and Sickler went off to college, their parents were ready for a change. They sold the restaurant; a job opportunity brought the couple to Wisconsin. “Since my mother was from here originally, they thought it would be nice for her to be closer to her family, which she had been away from for so long,” adds Sickler.
The sisters did their own thing for a few years, traveling and working in a variety of restaurants, coffee shops and wine bars across the country, before the desire to be near family prompted the women to move to Wisconsin.
They opened and ran Luna Italian Restaurant in downtown Neenah with their father. The trio established themselves through Luna, but the location wasn’t the right fit. The restaurant closed. A few years later, in the heart of the recession, an opportunity to open a new restaurant presented itself.
“Our dad is very driven and he’s a dreamer. He said, ‘You shouldn’t pass up this opportunity. You are going to have successes and failures
in life and you’ll never know unless you’ll try,’” says Sickler. DeFranza and Sickler took his advice. In November 2009 they opened Carmella’s, an Italian bistro named to honor their grandmother on Casaloma Drive in Appleton.
Carmella’s was born, SAP to follow
While the sisters were hesitant to open a restaurant in a strip mall, they were determined to create an atmosphere that transported guests to a different place.
“Our philosophy was let’s bring our guests in and make them feel like they are at our home,” says DeFranza. “Growing up in the family restaurant, we understood at a young age how it felt to make people happy. For us, it was through food.” The menu features family recipes that have been perfected over time. The menu is the same all day with updates made seasonally.
Carmella’s is very personal to DeFranza and Sickler. “This is the way we grew up. This is what we ate growing up. It has so much history,” says Sickler. SAP Brunch, Brown Bag & Bakery became an extension of who they are. The entrepreneurs identified the need for a brunch spot in Appleton. When space opened up within the same strip mall as Carmella’s, the sisters took another leap of faith. They opened SAP in May 2014.
“We knew it would be hard, we’d have to let go of a lot because we are now taking care of double, but we are very fortunate to have grown a team of managers and staff that understand what we are trying to do,” adds Sickler. The concept behind SAP was to offer great food, made-to-order, local and organic when possible. The menu includes breakfast, lunch and larger entrees available all day; SAP features a coffee bar and a wide selection of beer and wine.
The sisters admit they’vec onsidered opening additional locations, but now’s not the time. DeFranza suggests SAP would be the easier of the two to replicate in a different city.
In addition to running the restaurants, the family has embarked on additional endeavors. They’ve bottled up the tasty Carmella’s sauce, which can now be found on store shelves in over 100 locations throughout Wisconsin and Illinois. They are looking to expand further. Catering has also become an important part of their business. They host events in a side room at Carmella’s and cater many off-premise events.
Divide and conquer
To be most efficient, and to play to their strengths, DeFranza and Sickler have split up the business responsibilities.
DeFranza handles the office tasks, including creating the schedule for their 120 employees. She answers every email that comes in. “I am also the wine girl and I take care of everything that goes on the menus,” adds DeFranza. Sickler handles the catering requests. She is constantly creating menus, talking to the chefs and coordinating and planning parties.
Both spend some time on the floor, greeting customers and making sure everything in the front of the house is running smoothly. The days can be long, but DeFranza and Sickler both have kids waiting for them at home. While juggling business ownership and a family could be a challenge, the two have developed a system to make time at home a priority.
“I think life was really crazy for a number of years but we’ve been fortunate to work into a schedule that we can be home with our families at night,” says Sickler. “We’ve had to adjust so it works for them first and then for here, and it does.” While not everyone could work with their family, DeFranza and Sickler wouldn’t have it any other way.
“We are a crazy family that likes to be together a lot. I couldn’t be happier coming into work every day and working with the people I love most, although we have good days and bad days like everyone else,” adds Sickler.
She explains there are moments when they want to scream at each other, but the next minute they find themselves complimenting the other how great they look that day.
DeFranza adds, “It’s hard sometimes because you can so easily say how you are feeling or act inappropriately because you know there is always that love.” As business owners, it’s difficult to leave work at work. “We are open seven days a week, so it’s like we never get to shut that part of our brains off,” says DeFranza. When the conversation at get-togethers turns to restaurant matters, Sickler’s children are quick to remind them it’s family time.
DeFranza and Sickler feel fortunate to have built a strong following so they’re happy to give back to the community. They do this by making donations to charitable organizations large and small. “We choose not to focus on one or two specific; we would rather give to all,” says DeFranza.
In addition to giving gift cards or a dining experience, the sisters strive to make an impact on the community by supporting fellow small business owners. DeFranza says, “A lot of what we serve is made by local businesses — artisan cheese makers from Wisconsin, farmers down the road, bakeries around the block and family-run meat markets.”
Sickler explains they’re passionate about sustainability and keeping it local. The two were on the forefront of bringing the local food movement to Appleton. She adds, “We were able to support so many businesses and to help people think more about what is available here than they had in the past.”
When looking forward, DeFranza and Sickler reveal they have their hands full with Carmella’s and SAP, so they likely won’t be opening any restaurants soon, although they do have hopes of growing the sauce and the catering sides of the business. The sisters are also branching out by doing some consulting.
“We can help with the opening of a new restaurant or we can go into an existing restaurant and identify the things we see as good or bad or that need work,” says DeFranza.
“When you’ve been in the business your whole life you become uber-critical,” adds Sickler. “Nicole and I notice and obsess over different things, which is what makes us a really great team. We are very alike and very different at the same time.”
While DeFranza and Sickler have poured their heart into their businesses, they had a list of people they wanted to thank for their success. “The community had made this feel like our home away from home. People have been so supportive, kind and generous,” says Sickler. “We want to give kudos to our staff, because we wouldn’t be here without them. And, we have to thank our mother and father — they are the reason all of this is happening. My dad works his tail off to make sure his daughters have a good future. Everything he has done was for us to have a better life.” w