WHITESTONE — Lisa Cotoggio’s sweet dreams became a reality on Sept. 28 when she opened Grandma’s Cheesecake Sandwiches in Whitestone. The store is selling cheesecake sandwiches made with her grandma’s recipe, just blocks from her grandparents’ home.
For Cotoggio, who grew up in College Point where she went to St. Fidelis School, the decision to start her own business stems in part from her concern for the homeless and from her own fear of becoming homeless.
Cotoggio said her family always helped others because others had always helped them. She heard the same message at St. Fidelis.
“Going to grammar school in the ’60s and early ’70s at St. Fidelis, it was instilled in you,” Cotoggio said. “Going to church twice a week, they instilled in the sermons that you should help.”
Those lessons have stuck. Cotoggio had always made a decent salary, usually in advertising or sales, but last year at the age of 57, she was struggling to find work. She decided to start a business, and she kept remembering her grandma’s recipe.
In March, she was getting interest from big supermarket chains, like Whole Foods and ShopRite, about selling her sandwiches. That prompted Cotoggio to look into opening a store. She had been renting space at Cardinali Bakery in Carle Place, L.I., but the space was too small for her.
Cotoggio signed a lease for her store in May. She had to refinance her condo, empty out her retirement funds and max out on her credit card, leaving her $200,000 in debt. But plans to get her products into supermarkets by Nov. 1 and a few commercials that will appear on NY1 soon give her hope, along with her special angel in heaven.
“I think she’s watching over me now because everything is going so smoothly,” Cotoggio said of her grandma, Raphaella, who passed away in 2003.
So far, business at her new sandwich shop has been brisk. The store sold out of sandwiches each of the first three days it was open. Cotoggio and her lone employee, Chantel Wallace, originally made more than 250 sandwiches thinking they would last, but with the buzz in the neighborhood, sales boomed from the start.
The bakery has been so popular that Cotoggio had to close early on the first day and stay until midnight the first two days to make more sandwiches. Her mom came to support her during the grand opening, but even she was turned away.
“These are excellent,” said customer Jay Bomser of the mini-cheesecakes. “It’s nice and small. When you buy a big cheesecake, you’re like, ‘Oh, if I eat all of that, I’m finished.’ This little portion is perfect. It’s good for a lunch break.”
Cotoggio has hired two more employees who are set to start soon. But, for now, it is just her and Wallace.
The owner impressed Wallace during his interview, when they first spoke about Cotoggio’s work with the homeless. Cotoggio baked 150 heart-shaped cheesecake sandwiches and gave them to the homeless in Babylon, L.I. and in Midtown Manhattan around Valentine’s Day this year.
“A lot of people get into business for what it can do for them, but she gives back,” Wallace said. “That’s another thing I really admire about her. She’s a very giving person.”