Sat, March 02, 2024

A pandemic survival story

In the midst of a crisis, Dolce Darlin’ breathed new life into an old favorite restaurant

The pandemic was hard on many local businesses, and sadly, some didn’t survive. But others made it through that unsettled period and are still alive. Over the next several weeks, we’ll look at their stories and what made the difference for them.

The story of Dolce Darlin’ is one of rebirth during the midst of a personal and national crisis.

In December 2019, a personal catastrophe set Cat Musgrove on a path of finding something to make ends meet. Her choices included moving to Tennessee, finding some use for her literature degree, or turning her non-income-producing hobby of baking into a moneymaker.

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“I prayed about it for months,” Musgrove said. “I felt God kept telling me to keep looking.”

Cat Musgrove started her business, Dolce Darlin’, in the midst of the pandemic. (Photo contributed)

After months of searching for a suitable and affordable property to locate a business, in April 2020, one popped up in her internet search that seemed perfect. It was a pink house on the corner of Telfair and Fourth Streets, – the former location of La Maison Restaurant. It had been vacant since the death of Chef Heinz Sowinski on Sept. 30, 2015.

Musgrove bribed her real estate agent with cupcakes to get a showing of the house. She immediately knew it was the perfect location.

“God showed me what I was supposed to do with every room,” Musgrove said.

The entryway to Dolce Darlin’. (Photo by Gary Kauffman)

The catch was that the asking price was more than Musgrove could afford. So she wrote a letter to Chef Heinz’s widow, Zelda, appealing to her nostalgia for the memory-making place La Maison had once been.

The letter said, “I’m giving you my maximum offer. In exchange for a lower price, I promise to breathe new life into this place and make it a place for making memories again.”

That sealed the deal, and in June, Musgrove put out an all-call for prayers and help in refurbishing the pink house into a place of business again.

“We were living on a prayer, doing Bon Jovi all the way,” Musgrove said.

Cat Musgrove runs Dolce Darlin’ with her two children, Dylin and Danee. (Photo contributed)

To her surprise, hundreds of people responded to her call, many of them being complete strangers. Some walked over from a few blocks away, but one couple drove from Alabama one weekend to lend a hand.

Then on Nov. 7, 2020, in the throes of the pandemic, Dolce Darlin’ opened its doors for the first time, staffed primarily by herself and her two college-age children, Danee and Dylin.

Starting a business is never easy, but especially difficult at a time when some businesses were shutting down and many people weren’t venturing out of their homes. But Musgrove knew she was doing the right thing.

“At the end of the day, I knew this was what I was supposed to be doing,” she said. “The entire business is modeled on service to the customers. During the pandemic, offering stability in any way is a gift to them. Stability and consistency are very important here.”

Some of the delicious baked goods Cat Musgrove makes from scratch. (Photo by Gary Kauffman)

Musgrove serves up made-from-scratch baked goods like cupcakes, cookies, scones, cinnamon rolls, chicken salad, pimento cheese, banana pudding, take-and-bake meals, and even homemade vanilla flavoring. It’s a customer-driven enterprise—Musgrove routinely reaches out to her social media followers to find out what specials they would like to see her offer.

“My menu changes every week because people want to try new things,” she said.

The rooms are available to rent for events like parties or book clubs. And each Friday at 6 p.m. she live streams a cooking class (the ingredient list is posted ahead of time) and she offers one-on-one cooking classes.

But there’s one other unique offering not found in most businesses – a box where customers can drop in their prayer requests. Then each week her son, Dylin tapes the requests into a journal and prays for them.

Musgrove believes this type of customer service, consistent excellence, and unique experiences has made her business successful.

Experiences are important at Dolce Darlin’ even for the smallest customers, who always get two stickers in case they lose one. (Photo by Gary Kauffman)

“People will stick with those they trust,” she said. “They want us to stay around, covid or not. We’re constantly listening outside our walls for what customers want.”

The advice she has for anyone starting a business, whether during a crisis or not, is to value service, communication, and self-belief.

“Have faith in yourself and your business,” she said. “Don’t give up too easily. Have strong communication with your customers, your staff, and your vendors. There’s not enough value placed on communication and building relationships.”

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