Brenda Barnicki’s pitch to her husband for her part-time business idea was more than a little unconventional. “I want to work for free,” she said. “And I want to donate all my profits to children’s charities.”
That sweet calling created Bellafina Chocolates in Kingsport, Tennessee. Today, it pleases the hearts of chocolate lovers and improves the lives of abused children.
On the other side of the mountains in Hendersonville, North Carolina, the Dandelion Café is also using food to change the world – one employee at a time. Women trying to gain work skills so they can leave abusive relationships get their start here chopping vegetables and waiting on tables.
From Mad Priest Coffee in Chattanooga to Aurora Studio & Gallery in Asheville and many places in between, the mountains are full of labors of love.
Salvation, made from scratch
At first blush, the daily special board at the Dandelion Café reads like your typical chic lunch spot. Luscious tomato pie, kale and pomegranate salad, turkey, pear and brie panini.
But there’s an untold story simmering in the kitchen of this hopping diner in downtown Hendersonville, North Carolina.
The all-woman workforce of Dandelion Café is made up of recovering victims of domestic violence looking for a new lease on life.
“Helping somebody do things they didn’t think they could do and walk through that fear and believing in them is probably the best therapy ever,” says Tonya Blackford, the executive director of Safelight, a nonprofit for victims of domestic violence and child abuse.
Dandelion serves as a job training ground for Safelight’s clients — a critical missing ingredient for women trying to escape the cycle of abuse.
“If you have a fear of nowhere to live and no money to support you and your children, that keeps women in domestic violence. They would end up back in the shelter consistently,” says Kat Nevel, the manager of Dandelion Café.
Special to Smoky Mountain Living
Dandelion Cafe staff
The all-woman workforce of Dandelion Café is made up of recovering victims of domestic violence looking for a new lease on life.
The women behind the counter of Dandelion Café learn the restaurant trade from scratch -- from the how-to of dicing a butternut squash to grilling the perfect portabella.
The true mettle of Dandelion’s mission goes beyond the tangibles, however.
“More than teaching them a certain skill we are trying to build up their confidence and help them realize it only takes one step toward something better,” Nevel says. “How can you believe you are worthy of anything if you’ve always been told you are not? If you don’t feel good about who you are, how can you go get a job?”
The café’s name is a metaphor for hope and resilience. A dandelion springs up as a weed yet carries the power of a wish, its beautiful seeds blown on the wind to sprout again and again.
Around 50 women a year segue through Dandelion Café on the road to self-sufficiency. Women who land a coveted spot in Dandelion’s team must first show the resolve to severe the damaging relationship they were in and commit to building a new life.
Once chosen, they move through every part of the operation — from washing dishes to food prep to serving. But after 90 days, they must move on to make room for the next clients.
“The hardest part for us, when we have is to say ‘Your time is up,’” says Anita Bodenhamer, a case manager with Safelight who works alongside the women in Dandelion’s kitchen. While Nevel’s the culinary mastermind, Bodenhamer brings her own talents to the table, aside from a serendipitous knack for their signature sandwich — a grilled pimento with bacon.
“Anita never had any restaurant experience and I never had any social work experience,” Nevel said.
Fusing their fortes was critical to making Dandelion a seamless part of Safelight’s services, which range from counseling to legal support for more than 600 clients a year.
Blackford had long grappled with the workforce hurdle that stymied women from leaving their abusive partner for good. Finally, she realized Safelight had to craft its own solution from whole cloth.
“We only knew a few things — one was that I didn’t know anything about the restaurant business,” Blackford says.
Recruiting Nevel was the lynchpin.
Nevel’s reputation as a chef proceeds her Dandelion days. For a decade, Nevel ran the upscale Pampered Palate in Hendersonville, North Carolina.
The prospect of putting her restaurant expertise to a good cause was instantly appealing.
“I thought ‘How could I walk away from this?’ It was like watching sunlight come through the cracks. It is something you knew would be amazing once we figured it all out,” Nevel says.
Despite Dandelion’s higher calling, Nevel says Dandelion Café stands out on its culinary merits as well.
While loyal customers buy in to the café’s mission, its stellar reviews and ratings attract a steady stream of walk-ins who never realize they’re doing a good turn by dining here.
Nonetheless, running a bona fide restaurant with a revolving door of novice staff is a Herculean endeavor.
“If the bread isn’t toasted enough, or a cucumber isn’t fully peeled, or if you had to wait in line to get coffee, we want people to understand we are making an impact on the community and you are too because you’re here,” Nevel said.
Dandelion Café was a bold experiment when it opened its doors 3 years ago, an untested venture full of unanswered questions. Would the community step up and support it? Would women’s job prospects be any brighter? Would they find reassurance of self worth?
“I think it has been phenomenally successful,” Blackford says.
Safelight continues its support network once women finish their stint at Dandelion, from finding affordable housing to providing childcare when they have job interviews.
One of Dandelion’s hidden virtues has been the power of positive role models, providing hope to other struggling women.
“They can see other people in their same situation who have done X, Y, Z to improve their lives. It changed the conversation and dynamics of what does your future look like,” Blackford says.
On a recent winter morning, the women of Dandelion Café busied about slicing lemons for tea, sprucing the side salad case and stocking the dish shelves — all the while glancing at the clock in the count down to go time.
As the lunch crowd began streaming in, the women’s personal struggles fell by the wayside as the team rallied to pull off its daily miracle.
“It’s a family,” Bodenhamer says. “We are a bunch of women in the kitchen doing therapy.”
Bellafina Chocolates: A Sweet Calling
To unwind from her high-stress job as vice president managing businesses for a Fortune 500 company in Kingsport, Tennessee, Brenda Barnicki often retreated to her kitchen where stress melted away like the chocolate she whipped into ganache for her homemade truffles.
She spent hours perfecting her recipes, and eventually, when her hobby became more passion than pastime, she realized her chocolate could serve a much sweeter purpose.
In 2010, Barnicki told her husband, Scott, “I want to start a part-time chocolate business, I want to work for free, and I want to donate all my profits to children’s charities.”
“She’s always wanted to help children,” Scott says. “Even when we volunteered at the food bank, she was slipping children’s books into the food boxes.”
Photo courtesy Bellafina Chocoloates
Bellafina Chocolates’ sole purpose is to help children threatened by disease, poverty, abuse or neglect, says owner Brenda Barnicki.
With his support, Barnicki dipped into their savings, purchased a commercial chocolate-making machine and started her home-based, gourmet chocolate business with profits benefitting children’s charities.
The company’s name, Bellafina Chocolates, was inspired by Barnicki's Italian heritage and is a combination of words meaning beautiful and fine, both fitting descriptions of the chocolates she creates.
“Bellafina Chocolates’ sole purpose is to help children threatened by disease, poverty, abuse or neglect,” she says. “One hundred percent of our net profits benefit children’s charities, and by making some of the best chocolate on the planet, we quickly raised several thousand dollars for them.”
Some 18 months after starting Bellafina Chocolates, corporate restructuring left Barnicki with a final paycheck and a fair amount of free time.
She had devoted 20 years to the company, but she wasn’t bitter, indecisive, nor did she grieve for what she’d lost.
Instead, she put her management skills to work and expanded her chocolate business.
Life had handed her a lemon, so she made chocolate.
After a stint at the Culinary Institute of America in San Francisco where she studied advanced chocolate techniques, Brenda conducted a blind taste test pitting her original recipes against ones she’d modified according to what she’d learned.
The results didn’t surprise her.
“We use fresh cream and butter and fine chocolate,” she says. “Then we add the good stuff that gives our chocolate its decadent flavors. Pureed fruit, coffee, natural orange oil, peppermint oil, liqueurs. We don’t use extra sugar or preservatives to extend shelf life, and since our chocolates essentially are made-to-order, I believe they’ll always come out on top.”
Bellafina Chocolates has enjoyed phenomenal growth of 50 to 75 percent each year.
In 2015, when Barnicki moved the business from her home to a downtown Kingsport location, her dreams increased in direct proportion to the building’s square footage.
She has a commercial kitchen and prep area with space to expand, a retail and gift shop where every penny spent goes directly to help children, and there’s a small space Brenda converted into a sewing room with shelves of donated fabric and notions for the volunteers who make blankets and clothing for children around the globe.
There are currently no paid positions at Bellafina Chocolates, but Barnicki’s ultimate goal is to hire a few women transitioning from recovery programs, or who find themselves in other threatened situations.
“With a full-time worker or two, the patio dessert café I’m envisioning can become a reality. I knew the moment I saw the building the outdoor space was perfect.”
Barnicki laughed when she said, “I couldn’t back out now if I wanted to. Pallets of brick pavers for the café’s flooring have already been donated.”
She is indebted to her volunteers — at least two dozen big-hearted ones — who are helping advance the mission.
Volunteer Janet Evans says “When I retired a few months ago, I knew I wanted my retirement to count for something. Here, I get to help children and I get to do it in a joyful environment.”
Bellafina Chocolates supports several local, regional and international children’s charities.
One such charity, located in nearby Bristol, Children Exceeding Expectations (CEE), is unconventional in its location — a skybox at Bristol Motor Speedway — and in its mission to help pediatric oncology patients.
When the rumble of car engines and shouts from race fans fade at season’s end, the skybox is completely sanitized and transformed into a very special classroom.
“At CEE, these desperately ill children, usually with compromised immune systems, learn and play without having to wear masks and without fear of infections that spread like wildfire in regular classrooms,” Barnicki says.
Not so long ago, 10-year old Maddie, a student at CEE, was suffering from embryonal rhabdomyosarcoma. One day she and the other children arrived at school expecting an ordinary day. It was anything but. The entire class erupted with joy when the teacher announced, ‘Surprise! We’re going to Disney World!’”
These once-in-a-lifetime, all-expense paid trips are made possible by CEE’s special fund, Random Acts of Kindness, which Bellafina Chocolates is proud to support.
Maddie, who is now in remission and attending regular school, loves to draw. She, and another CEE student, put their talents to work and created special artwork for some of Bellafina’s gift boxes.
“I’m dedicated to growing this company to the point it can make a really significant impact on children’s lives,” Barnicki said. “I want Bellafina Chocolates to be around long after I’m gone. And I want our checks to have a lot more zeroes!”
On a mission
Get more bang for your buck by putting your consumer spending to work for a good cause. The Smoky Mountain region is home to a diverse mix of social enterprises with a higher calling in their community.
Stepping up to the plate to feed they hungry in its own community, F.A.R.M. Cafe in Boone, North Carolina, uses a donation-based model for its restaurant menu.
Those who can afford to pay more do, which subsidizes meals for the needy. The strong sense of community at F.A.R.M. Café — “where everybody eats regardless of means” — is evident based on its mostly volunteer workforce, including volunteers who pay for meals with in-kind services.
Drinking good beer for a good cause isn’t a terribly hard sell for Sanctuary Brewing Company in downtown Hendersonville, North Carolina.
This nano brewery and tap room was launched with the mission of supporting animal rescue and advocacy with its proceeds, from raising funds for a host of regional animal rescue groups to the owners private animal rescue farm.
Troubled by the global refugee crisis, an entrepreneur in Chattanooga, Tennessee, has put his passion for coffee to a humanitarian cause.
Michael Rice founded Mad Priest Coffee to provide employment for refuges who resettle in the region, helping them start a new life by tapping the vibrant Chattanooga coffee house scene.
Aurora Studio & Gallery in Asheville, North Carolina, provides emotional sustenance for artists struggling with mental health issues, addiction and homelessness, tapping the creative spirit as a path to recovery and healing.
Aurora partners with the arts community to offer studio space, supplies and artistic instruction, as well as venues to sell their work.
From handmade art to homegrown produce, Full Spectrum Farms in Jackson County, North Carolina, teaches people with autism a resourceful cottage industry and brings their final products to market.
Clients served by Full Spectrum Farms learn a wide array of handicrafts from visiting art instructors and cooperatively tend a communal farm.
The art they make and the produce they grow is sold onsite at the farm and weekly at the Jackson County Farmer’s Market.
Borderland Tees in Knoxville, Tennessee, is making its mark on the community through ministry and spiritual outreach to those in need.
The screen print shop — filling orders for everything from T-shirts and aprons to tote bags and ball caps — is a social enterprise that funds its ministry through its work instead of asking for donations.
Helping women with troubled pasts find a fresh start, Clean Slate Enterprises in Sylva, North Carolina, sells a line of non-toxic, organic cleaners made from natural substances. The products are handmade in small batches at the Clean Slate House, a transitional group home for women rebuilding their lives after incarceration.
Proceeds from the cleaning products fund services by the Clean Slate Coalition, including counseling, life skills coaching, job training and enrichment activities from yoga to journaling.