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Former employee reopens N.J. ice cream shop after death of beloved owner

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In February, when beloved Carvel ice cream shop owner Nelson Cheng died from the coronavirus, scores of former employees mournfully recalled how important he was in their lives and the Yardville community in Hamilton.

He did far more that sell ice cream for over 30 years – he was a father figure and mentor to the many young people he employed. They stayed in each other’s lives well after employment. They were family.

Denise Bongiovi was one of them.

She recalls Cheng scooping her ice cream, with chocolate sprinkles, when she was 6. She worked for him during high school and college, from 1998 to 2005. Nelson made her wedding cake. She now brought her kids to the shop. “He’s been a longstanding part of my life for a long time,” she said.

Like others, she wondered what would happen to the store without Cheng. He was the store.

New Carvel owners Denise and Joe Bongiovi in the shop on reopening day, Jul 1, 2021. Michael Mancuso | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

A few weeks ago, she delighted many in the Yardville neighborhood and beyond when she announced on Facebook she and her husband Joe had bought the business. They reopened it Thursday.

“I just felt like I couldn’t see it sit, I couldn’t see it close,” Denise said Wednesday, as she made final preparations in the store off South Broad Street in Dover Park Plaza.

And while she would have been happy to see Carvel reopen, she felt the shop, and community, needed not just a business owner, but some Nelson Cheng legacy.

“I just couldn’t – I couldn’t see it open to somebody behind the counter that I felt didn’t really know him,” Denise said of Cheng, tearing up. Talking about Cheng still gets her emotional.

“I think the community just needed someone to be here who knew him and loved him and respected him,” she said. So she and Joe reached out to the Cheng family about buying it.

“And here we are,” she said with a smile.

Yardville Carvel reopens after COVID death of beloved owner

The Yardville Carvel reopens on July 1, 2021. Denise Bongiovi and her husband Joe bought the store following the death of longtime owner Nelson Cheng, who passed away in February due to the coronavirus. Here, Rhyanna Brown, who worked in the store for five years, walks along a counter to update the in-store signage with Joe Bongiovi, left.Michael Mancuso | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

Denise and Joe Bongiovi are both teachers in the Princeton public school system, she at Johnson Park Elementary, he at Princeton High School. (They both formerly worked in Hamilton schools too.)

What they do not have in retail food service acumen, they have a solid combined resume: First, Denise noted, they are parents, and Joe was a business major and runs a nonprofit on the side, while Denise knows how the shop operates.

“I say he’s kind of the businessman, the brains behind the operation, and I’m the heart,” Denise said.

They also have the community on their side. When NJ Advance Media was talking to Denise, a woman walked by and gave Denise a thumbs up and said, “We’re so happy you’re doing this.”

And Denise’s Facebook post announcing the move has almost 600 comments, many expressing excitement and support, and that they’ll be by for a treat.

Denise plans to run Carvel full-time, and maybe return to teaching at a later date, but it’s all ice cream right now.

The Yardville Carvel family Cheng created lives on not just with her and Joe, but with other former employees who have stepped up and returned to help them get the business going. “They’re helping us groom the next crew.”

“(Cheng) meant a lot to us, and we knew how much he meant to the community,” Denise said of the family.

The Cheng family said they are thrilled with the Bongiovis’ plans and that Nelson Cheng’s legacy will continue.

“I know my dad would be very happy that Denise and Joe will be taking on the epic task of running the store he loved so much,” Cheng’s son, Nicholas Cheng, said in a Facebook post of his own. “I hope that you’ll embrace them and continue on the legacy, one ice cream cone at a time.”

“Soon, Denise and Joe will have their own regulars and will know their orders by heart even before they walk through the doors, just like dad did,” he wrote.

Yardville Carvel reopens after COVID death of beloved owner

Denise Bongiovi greets Megan Carrigg, another former longtime Carvel employee, who came in to help out on opening day, July 1, 2021 at the shop in Yardville.Michael Mancuso | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

Nelson Cheng

Nelson Cheng owned the Carvel ice cream shop in Yardville for over 30 years, and dispensed life lessons and ice cream to many in the Hamilton community.(Family photo)

The Bongiovis have planned an opening celebration with prizes on July 10, which was Nelson Cheng’s birthday.

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Kevin Shea may be reached at [email protected].

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