Knowing full well that restaurants are one of — if not the — toughest businesses, Nicole Marie Capp, CCAS BA ‘09 leveraged a newly minted MBA to open a sandwich shop with a Wharton classmate. And she magnified those challenges by choosing to toy with Italian classics.
The shop, Matt and Marie’s — a reference to the co-owners’ middle names — features menu staples such as chicken piccata and hoagies, but the ingredients, as Ms. Capp’s Italian friends from Brooklyn learned, are hardly traditional.
Brooklyn, Ms. Capp says, is a “very dynamic and ever-changing city,” although many Italian families still live on the same blocks their grandparents did. “Most of my friends are those wonderful people,” she says.
At a recent gathering, when her friends expected grilled sausage and pasta and meatballs, Ms. Capp served her shop’s Verdura Double. The sandwich, which contains broccoli rabe, thyme and garlic roasted zucchini, and smoked goat cheese, is one of Matt and Marie’s more unique offerings.
“I had one of my friends, 100 percent Italian, doesn’t like broccoli rabe, doesn’t like zucchini, doesn’t like goat cheese. He has the sandwich, and he loved it,” Ms. Capp says. “I mean, he was expecting a meatball sandwich or chicken parm, and it really blew his socks off.”
If the modern Italian fare can win Brooklyn over, the sky’s the limit, she says, even as she notes that “My grandmother wouldn’t recognize all of my sandwiches today.”
In fact, Italian food shops have run in Ms. Capp’s family for some time. When her maternal great-grandparents immigrated to Brooklyn from Ischia, a small island off the coast of Naples, in the 1950s, they opened an Italian-American grocery store and sandwich shop. “They were always known in Brooklyn for making the very best Italian sandwiches,” Ms. Capp says.
But then a new highway was built diverting traffic, and the shop closed. Ms. Capp picked up the mantle. “I am blessed to be able to once again have hospitality be a part of my family’s background,” she says.
At Matt and Marie’s, that background is filtered through modern tastes. “Each of our sandwiches hits on salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and umami,” Ms. Capp says, the last term referring to savory. “Typically you need to go to a fine-dining restaurant to have that experience. We want people to have that experience on their lunch break.”
As a student at GW, where she was Student Association president, Ms. Capp always loved working with people. She was very involved in clubs, the Foggy Bottom community, and zoning for the new campus plan. “I always knew that I loved hands-on types of work,” she says. “I love that that comes together now at the store.”
When she graduated from GW, Ms. Capp wanted to open a food truck, but 2009 was a “very scary time to take on risk,” she says. So she worked for Accenture (“the best experience that one could possibly have”), and then decided on business school. “The only reason I went to Wharton was to find a business partner to pursue an endeavor in hospitality,” she says.
She found just that in Wharton classmate Justin “Matt” Sapolsky. The two opened a catering business their first year of business school, and the store the second year. “It is the hardest business ever,” Ms. Capp says. Her advice for would-be-restaurateurs is “have a love and passion for what you’re doing, because you need to wake up every morning and eat, breathe, and sleep your business.”
As one might expect, Ms. Capp and her partner’s ambitions are larger than a single storefront. “We started Matt & Marie’s so that we could bring fresh, simple, Italian ingredients nationally, so that everyone can understand what it’s like to have incredible Italian food in a fast, casual setting,” she says.
The shop recognizes its location in Philadelphia, which Ms. Capp says is very hospitable to entrepreneurs and represents a vibrant food scene. The sharp provolone cheese at Matt and Marie’s comes from Claudio’s Specialty Foods, a family-run operation in the Philadelphia Italian market. And the bread at Ms. Capp’s shop come from Liscio’s Bakery in the city.
“Our roots are not just Brooklyn. We incorporate ingredients from many Italian-American families,” Ms. Capp says.
In Philadelphia, people from all walks of live crave Italian hoagies — a term, Ms. Capp notes, that was coined in the City of Brotherly Love. “They said ‘We are going to create a name for the sandwich all to ourselves,’” Ms. Capp says. (As to a potential papal visit to Philadelphia as part of the World Meeting of Families 2015 next September, she says “The pope’s gotta come for a sandwich! Maybe we will have to come up with a special for him.”)
Matt and Marie’s will also expand within the city and along the East Coast, and that includes Washington, D.C. “Get ready, D.C., you are on the top of the list!” Ms. Capp says. “It means that I will be knocking on the doors of the GWorld office really soon.”
On a recent visit to Matt and Marie’s, Julie Bindelglass, BA ’11, herself a former Student Association president, split the Verdura Double and the Capri — a sandwich with hand-made fresh mozzarella, red pepper pesto, tomato, basil, and aged balsamic vinegar. “Both were flavorful, filling, and overall delicious,” she says.
Asked what it means to eat at a shop owned by a fellow alumna, Ms. Bindelglass says she much prefers that to an “impersonal chain.”
“You can absolutely see the passion that went into everything from the design to the menu,” she says.
Can’t wait to try one of Nicole’s delicious sandwiches? Matt & Marie’s is hosting a (BYOB!) tasting for the Philadelphia Alumni Network on Thursday, December 4 at 6pm. Space is limited, so register today!